Gadling Gear Review – T-Mobile Blackberry Curve 8900

Last year, I wrote about the T-Mobile Blackberry Curve, and described why I was convinced that it was the best phone for International travelers.

Its combination of T-Mobile WiFi calling and smartphone features made it an absolute winner, and it was one of the 25 products featured in our “best travel products of 2008“.

As with all mobile phones, technology does not stand still, and T-Mobile recently released the newest version of this Blackberry – the Curve 8900.

The 8900 takes the best parts of the older Curve, and adds a 3.2 megapixel camera with Auto-focus and LED flash, a MicroUSB port (instead of MiniUSB), GPS, a higher resolution screen and an improved keyboard. Still inside the device is the fantastic WiFi calling feature and all the other goodies offered by the Blackberry operating system. The device also underwent a little cosmetic surgery, and is in my opinion the best looking Blackberry to date.
As a reminder – the T-Mobile Hotspot@home service allows you to use a WiFi network as an alternative way of getting on the T-Mobile network.

When you are outside their cellular coverage area, you simply get yourself on Wi-Fi, and you can make and receive calls, send and receive text/picture messages and use the web/email portion of the phone. Of course, none of this is particularly impressive if you are just sitting in Peoria without coverage, but being able to turn on Wi-Fi in your Tokyo hotel and make free phone calls without any trouble is in my opinion the best feature on any phone available at the moment.

Yes – many phones have VOIP built in (the iPhone has Skype for example), but the seamless integration on the Curve is just amazing. You make and receive calls using your own phone number, and you don’t have to screw around with any additional software.

Battery life is quite simply astounding – and is one of the few phones that actually gets close to its promised standby and talk times (5.5 hours talk time and 15 days standby). Even with over 400 emails a day, I could still get away with just one charge a week.

The Blackberry Curve 8900 is not perfect though – the device still uses the old(er) EDGE data system instead of 3G, so when you are using the cellular network, you’ll feel the pain of slow transfers.

Also, the Blackberry OS feels a tad cumbersome when compared to the iPhone or the T-Mobile G1 running Android. Simple things often take more button presses than they should.

Still, despite those minor issues, the Curve 8900 is quite simply amazing, and for anyone leaving the country a lot, a real lifesaver. To make the device even better, T-Mobile is the only operator in the country that offers an unlimited email add-on package. For just $19.95 (in addition to the normal plan costs), you get unlimited email in any country that offers T-Mobile roaming service. AT&T will charge you $60 for just 50MB of international data, and that plan only applies to a select number of countries.

One quick word of warning though – the unlimited email plan really only applies to email, in the past they would permit any data, but recently they made changes that started billing customers for web or other data used abroad.

One final major improvement I need to mention is the new Blackberry App World. This iPhone like “app store” is fantastic, and finally puts an end to the hassle that was always involved with getting applications on the device. The App World is free, and is currently filled with loads of cool applications, including Slacker for the Blackberry.

The Blackberry Curve 8900 is available from T-Mobile for $149 (after a $100 mail in rebate), or from (a T-Mobile dealer) for free (after a $100 mail in rebate). These prices require a new service plan. The price without a new plan is $500.

The best phone for international travel?

I’ve written about the scam that is international roaming charges in the past, and I mentioned briefly how you can bypass paying an arm and a leg to talk to the folks you left behind. But in this article I’m going to tell you what I consider to be the best phone on the market for international travelers; The T-Mobile Blackberry Curve.

Why the curve, and not the sexy iPhone? Well, the Blackberry Curve has 2 very interesting features you won’t find with any other carrier, or any other phone. One is unique to the phone itself, and one is unique to T-mobile.

The Blackberry Curve (as well as several other T-Mobile Blackberry smartphones) comes equipped with Wi-Fi. And while that may not be very special, the Wi-Fi in these phones supports a mobile calling system called “UMA”. UMA is essentially a method of connecting to the mobile network using Wi-Fi and the Internet, instead of cellular towers.

What this means, is that as long as you can get the phone connected to the Internet over Wi-Fi, you’ll be able to use it just like you do when you are back home.
For example; lets say you are in Denmark. The cost of a call from your mobile phone in Denmark back home, is $1 per minute. But if you have free Wi-Fi at your hotel, you simply let the Blackberry connect to that, and you can make calls as long as you want, using the minutes in your plan. Better yet; you can even send and receive text messages, and get online, without any insane roaming charges. If you subscribe to the T-Mobile hotspot@home service, you’ll be able to make unlimited domestic calls for just $10 a month.

The second reason why I recommend the Blackberry for international use, is the T-Mobile Blackberry international plan. For just $19.95 per month, you can send and receive as many emails as you want, on any mobile network in the world. To put that in perspective; AT&T will charge you $16 for just one Megabyte of data (about 20 or 30 emails). The T-mobile Blackberry International plan can even be added for a portion of the month, and you’ll only be charged the pro-rated price.

I have used my Blackberry abroad many times, and never received a bill with more than $10 in roaming fees (you won’t always be in range of Wi-Fi). Of course, there are alternatives to making Internet calls back home, but the Blackberry does it so effortlessly that it’s almost a no-brainer.

My only tip is to disable the “mobile network” option on the Blackberry before making a call, as the Blackberry can switch between Wi-Fi and cellular seamlessly, and if the Wi-Fi connection drops, you might be back to $1/min calls without noticing it.

Finally; one other reason why I prefer T-Mobile over any other carrier, is that they have a very liberal phone unlocking policy. Anyone who has an account “in good standing” can get the unlock code for their phone after just 90 days. Once your phone is unlocked, you’ll be able to swap out your own sim card for a prepaid card at your destination.