No longer neglecting its Direct Connect customers, Sprint has extended its BlackBerry offering to include the Curve 8350i for its Nextel clientele. This $149 smart phone sports all of the features we've come to love in the BlackBerry Curve, but with Nextel push-to-talk capabilities, RIM's latest OS Version 4.6, and a full HTML Web browser. It's a solid pick for business customers who need to remain in constant contact.
The Curve 8350i is the sharpest 8300 series Curve we've ever come across. The piano black device has a similarly colored keyboard with yellow accents around its trackball and push-to-talk button. While the 8350i has the same 340 x 320-pixel, 2.5-inch display as older Curves, the resolution is not as high as current BlackBerrys, such as the Curve 8900 (480 x 360) or Bold (480 x 320). The 8350i, at 4.4 x 2.4 x 0.7 inches, is a bit bigger than the standard Curve (which measures 4.2 x 2.4 x 0.6 inches). The reason for its extra bulk is likely the iDEN radio and the required room for the larger 1400-mAh lithium ion battery, which replaces the standard 1150-mAh one.
A small yellow Nextel logo decorates the bottom of the unit. On the left you'll find a 2.5mm headphone jack, which unfortunately replaces the much more usable 3.5mm jack found on most Curves. There's also a microUSB charging port on the left side. Volume controls and a quick-launch button that defaults to the camera launcher are on the right side.
The Curve 8350i is the first 8300 series device to sport the newer RIM 4.6 operating system user interface, much like the Bold and Curve 8900 devices do. However, the UI doesn't look as crisp on the 8350i as it does on those aforementioned phones due to its lower-resolution display.
We appreciated the monochrome icons and the inclusion of software like DataViz's Documents to Go, which lets you make small edits and create Word, Excel, or PowerPoint documents on the go. We experienced a few lags and hangs, but nothing more than we'd expect from older Curves running the same 312-MHz processor.
E-mail and Instant Messaging
Like the Curve 8330, the 8350i comes with chat software preinstalled, including Google Talk, Yahoo Messenger, and AIM. We appreciated that after logging into our Google Chat account we could surf the Web and do other things with IM active in the background. You can load up to ten e-mail accounts, including personal ones or corporate software accounts like IBM Lotus Domino, Microsoft Exchange, or Novell GroupWise. We set up our office Gmail account in under a minute; the new and improved e-mail software lets you simply enter in your e-mail address and password; the rest of the setup is done for you.
The Curve 8350i has the same firm and nicely spaced keyboard as the rest of the 8300 series, and so it remains one of our favorites. If you're a heavy texter or e-mailer, you'll fall in love with the keypad on the 8350i.
Web Browsing and Wi-Fi
Since the 8350i runs on the Nextel National Network, which was built using iDEN network technology and not Sprint's EV-DO data network, we noticed that its signal wasn't as good as other Sprint devices most of the time. Indoors, where we usually had a full Sprint signal, we had just two bars of Nextel iDEN service. However, when we did have a full signal, we were able to load m.CNN.com in 15 seconds, m.ESPN.com in 22 seconds, and m.NYT.com in 34 seconds. That's much slower than the Sprint EV-DO Curve 8330, which loaded m.CNN.com in 6 seconds and m.ESPN.com in 5 seconds (we did not test that device with m.NYT.com).
Making up somewhat for its slow iDEN speeds, the 8350i also has a Wi-Fi radio for faster browsing. With Wi-Fi enabled we were able to load m.CNN.com in 9 seconds, m.NYT.com in 14 seconds, and m.ESPN.com in 14 seconds. We love that the browser supports full HTML surfing as well; to turn on full Web site support simply toggle the Browser Identification setting to Firefox or Internet Explorer. With the option set to Firefox and Wi-Fi on, we loaded the full NYTimes.com in 49 seconds and the full CNN.com site in 1 minute and 14 seconds; ESPN.com still defaulted to its mobile counterpart.
The 8350i, unlike its Curve 8330 cousin on Sprint, doesn't offer much in the way of multimedia. It doesn't support the Sprint Music Store or Sprint TV, like the 8330 does. However, you can load your own music and videos on the included 1GB microSD Card, which is located under the battery. We're glad that Sprint bundles a headset, but again we're disappointed that this smart phone uses a 2.5mm jack, which means you can't plug in your own earphones.
The Curve 8350i supports GPS, and it runs Sprint Navigation software, which is powered by TeleNav and costs $10 per month. The service was not set up on our device during our trial period; we will update this review once this feature is up and running.
During our two weeks of testing with the 8350i, we didn't experience a single dropped call. Callers sounded clear, and that they didn't report any qualms with the call quality during extensive conversations. In the depths of Penn Station, where we lost our caller twice with an AT&T phone, the 8350i was able to place clean and crisp phone calls.
For those who have forgotten about Nextel, its Direct Connect service lets you use a phone like a walkie-talkie; when you enter in a person's Direct Connect number (different from their cell phone number) and press the Direct Connect button on the side of the phone, you're instantly connected to the person. Group Connect lets you add up to 20 people into a single session. Sprint-Nextel currently has 21 Direct Connect handsets, ranging from flip phones like the Renegade V950 up to smart phones like the 8350i.
We tested the 8350i's Direct Connect feature in our office building, with one person on the 21st floor and another in the lobby, and we experienced no delay when making push-to-talk calls. Moreover, the volume was loud enough to hear our caller, even over crowds of people entering and leaving the building.
The Curve 8350i has the same 2-megapixel camera as other Curves in the 8300 series, and can also send multimedia messages with pictures attached. (This previously was not possible with older Curve 8330s from Sprint, but a new software update enables this feature.) Shots taken on the device lacked the color, sharpness, and brightness of other devices, such as the 2-MP camera on the Bold. The 8350i is fine for taking quick shots, but don't expect lots of detail.
We were able to use the 8350i heavily over a 24-hour period for Web surfing, chatting on Google Talk, and placing phone calls, before having to recharge the phone. If you plan to use this smart phone just periodically, you should make it through two days on a single charge. That said, the 8350i offers 4 hours of talk time, while the 8330 sports a 5.9-hour rating, despite its smaller battery. That's because iDEN network requires more power to operate.
The BlackBerry Curve 8350i is a smart choice for business users who require push-to-talk capabilities. The BlackBerry Curve 8330, which is $50 less, supports Sprint's faster EV-DO data network, TV playback, and a full music download store. However, BlackBerry addicts who would benefit from Direct Connect will be happy with this device.