When you start reviewing BlackBerry smartphones, you soon learn to look closely at the details. RIM have made a habit of making relatively minute differentiations between what, at first glance, might seem very similar handsets; luckily their loyal fanbase has proved willing to put in that effort. The Verizon BlackBerry Tour, then, borrows some of the style of the entry-level Curve and the specifications of the altogether more grown-up Bold: have RIM ended up with the best of both, or a Frankenmonster mash-up?
First impressions are good. In the box there’s a slipcase with belt-clip, an AC adapter, USB charging/sync cable, wired stereo headset and the battery. The phone itself is smaller than the Bold at 4.4 x 2.4 x 0.6 inches, though a little heavier than the Curve. Up front there’s a gloriously crisp, bright and high-resolution 2.4-inch 480 x 360 display and a backlit QWERTY keyboard; in-between there’s a familiar RIM trackball and the usual call-handling and menu keys.
Down the left-hand side of the phone there’s the voice-control trigger button, while the right-hand side has a 3.5mm headphone socket (which we wish was up top or on the bottom), volume keys, microUSB port and a camera shortcut key. The base of the phone is blank, while there are two keys – for locking and muting – on the top.
BlackBerry handsets are judged in no small part by their keyboards, and the Tour obviously arrives bearing that in mind. The closely packed keys use the same curved bezels as on the Bold, which do a great job of guiding your fingertips or thumbs into place. There’s obviously slightly less room than on the Bold – which is 0.2-inches wider – but it seems a reasonable sacrifice for a more pocket-friendly device. As with the Bold key-feel is excellent, quiet but tactile.
That’s good, because much of the Tour’s strength lies in its messaging abilities. RIM is known for its email client, and that’s no different here: as well as Microsoft Exchange support there’s POP and IMAP account functionality, together with instant messaging for the popular formats.
Elsewhere it’s the same old BlackBerry OS, which means a serviceable if not exactly outstanding browser, fair media player and Office file viewing and editing via Documents To Go. There’s also access to the BlackBerry App World, though you can only install software to the Tour’s 256MB of internal storage, not to a microSD card. There are far fewer titles on offer than in Apple’s App Store, but more than you’ll find in Palm’s version. Happily the OS supports multitasking, which means you, can have audio from the onboard PMP app (or streaming via Pandora) in the background while browsing or checking email.
The browser, though capable of visiting mobile and full HTML sites, pales in comparison to its counterparts on the iPhone, Pre or other platforms. Thanks to the high-resolution display you can fit plenty of page on-screen at any one time; the flip side is that you’ll do plenty of zooming in order to actually read the text. Here, the iPhone 3GS storms ahead, drawing and re-drawing pages far quicker than the Tour can manage. You’ll be accessing all this over Verizon’s EVDO Rev.A network, too, as there’s no WiFi provision on the Tour. Verizon make strong claims about the extent of their coverage, but there are still times we’d rather use faster or more accessible WiFi networks in preference to 3G.
On the back of the Tour there’s a 3.2-megapixel camera with video recording, which we found delivered mixed results. Still images are strong, with reasonable color reproduction; the LED light, like most of its kind, has a narrow sweet spot of effectiveness, outside which it’s either underpowered or prone to washing out detail. The 15fps video the Tour records, however, struggles with fast-moving scenes; that’s a common flaw for phone cameras.
Though we wish it had been fitted somewhere else on the Tour’s body, the 3.5mm headphone socket is a useful touch for anybody planning to make the smartphone their PMP. Tracks can be loaded directly via a microSD card or copied over with a USB connection. There’s also Verizon’s own V Cast Music Store, which charges a significant $1.99 per song; a 4GB memory card is in the box. The Tour is also comparable with Rhapsody, offering unlimited tracks for a $14.99 subscription. Audio quality is good, especially when you ditch the cheap included headset and replace it with your own. We were pleasantly surprised by the integrated speaker, which manages to produce loud and – until you reach the top end of the volume range – mainly crackle-free sound.
That’s handy, as Verizon offer their VZ Navigator GPS app pre-loaded on the Tour, and one of its more appealing features is voice-guidance. VZ Navigator is exactly the same here as it is on other Verizon phones, though the Tour does a decent job of finding – and keeping track of – a GPS signal. After the initial cold fix was past, the Tour could generally re-acquire a lock in under twenty seconds.
The business users that are drawn to BlackBerry devices prize their voice call ability, and the Tour can hold its head up here, too. Whether with a Bluetooth headset (which paired with no problems) or otherwise, sound quality at both ends was very high. Since the Tour offers global roaming, courtesy of an integrated GSM radio and SIM card, you can also use it when abroad; be aware, though, that Verizon’s per-minute fees for this are on the costly side, as is data roaming.
RIM rate the Tour as good for five hours talktime or up to 14 days standby. With heavy use during our initial testing we blasted through more than three-quarters of the indicated charge; more typical use will likely see the Tour go two days without needing attention.
There are a few obvious flaws with the BlackBerry Tour. The absence of WiFi may be mitigated somewhat by the prevalence and speed of Verizon’s EVDO Rev.A network, but it’s still an omission that feels miserly. RIM’s OS, too, may look the best it has in years, but newer rivals such as Palm’s webOS do show it up somewhat. Finally, the browser is reasonable but nothing special, and again other smartphones edge ahead with their Webkit-based apps.
Having looked through Verizon’s call-cost list, we’re a little surprised (and not in a good way) about the cost of international roaming. We suppose we should be grateful that an ostensibly CDMA device has any GSM capabilities whatsoever, but we can’t help thinking that frequent travelers would be better served with an unlocked device and a wallet full of pre-pay SIM cards.
Nonetheless, we won’t level that carrier criticism against the Tour. It does – noted exceptions aside – pretty much everything you ask of it, and in a sturdy, attractive and usable form-factor. The slimmed casing and rock-solid email functionality are a great combination to business-people and messaging-obsessed personal users, to which decent multimedia functionality is the icing on the cake. If a hardware keyboard is a must, then the BlackBerry Tour may just be Verizon’s best device.
BlackBerry Tour for Verizon hands-on demo: