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Overview

Positives: Well-constructed BlackBerry, feels great in hand, running OS 4.6, offers new media options to Nextel customers.
Negatives: Not-so-great call quality, slow data speeds, unpredictable text messaging

Introduction

It's no secret that iDEN has been a step behind when it comes to new phones. While their CDMA and GSM counterparts were enjoying fast, colorful devices with a slew of capabilities, iDEN users were stuck with relatively drab, boring handsets - until now. The BlackBerry 8350i represents a huge shift forward for Nextel users, who have been stuck with the BlackBerry 7100i since 2005. We spent several weeks reviewing every aspect of the Curve 8350i, and for the most part, came away impressed.

Design & Features

The BlackBerry Curve 8350i is packaged with the device, battery, a home charger, USB cable, 1GB microSD card, wired stereo headset, belt clip, CD, and instruction manuals. We were pleased that the device offers a belt clip instead of the standard BlackBerry pouch, saving users a few bucks at the accessory store.

The 8350i is a fantastically built BlackBerry. Due to the increased height and length of the device, it fits well in the hand. Additionally, the keyboard is ever so slightly different, with the keys being a bit firm to the touch versus the soft-press keys on other Curve models such as the 8330 - a testament that the device is geared toward the construction crowd. The black faceplate looks good, though it does show scratches more than the other BlackBerry's.

One of the frustrations of the device is the 2.5mm headphone port, which represents a shift back from the typical 3.5mm jack found on other recent BlackBerry devices. In order to use the device to play music, you'll need a 2.5mm to 3.5mm adapter, which is sold separately. Speaking of music, the device has a microSD card slot located under the battery which will support up to 16GB cards, making the 8350i more music-friendly than its predecessor.

BlackBerry Curve 8350i

Usability & Performance

The operating system is one of the areas where the 8350i shines. The device is preloaded with OS 4.6, meaning that the software is as up to date as possible; something that can't be said for the other Curve devices. A number of design enhancements in 4.6 make it a worthy upgrade from its predecessors, and it offers a clean user interface to boot.

When we received the device, it was preloaded with the 8350i launch software, OS 4.6.1.83. Various users of the initial software build have complained of poor reception, battery life, messaging issues, and an echo. A few weeks prior to our review, Sprint and BlackBerry offered OS 4.6.1.128 as a software update, and we installed it upon quickly testing 4.6.1.83. Our test unit had no problems with either software build, but for those that are experiencing issues, we would recommend a software update.

Beyond the software refresh, the Curve 8350i retains most of the BlackBerry programs that they have become famous for, including a calendar, address book, task list, internet browser, memo pad, voice recorder, and media manager. With the advent of OS 4.6 on the device, it is preloaded with DataViz Documents To Go Standard Edition, giving the user the ability to view Microsoft Word, Excel, and PowerPoint documents. In order to edit them, however, the user must purchase the Premium Edition.

On the messaging front, Nextel uses MMS to send both pictures and text messages, and as any Nextel user knows, text messaging on the iDEN network can be hit or miss. We never had any trouble with messaging on either software build, but have heard of many that have. Additionally, those that are in the habit of typing quickly may be disappointed, as there is an ever-so-slight lag in the device. Often times when typing, a 1-2 second delay would be present between typing words, leading the user to believe that it was typed improperly, and overcorrecting as a result. Heavy texters, use at your own risk.

Like any BlackBerry, the 8350i supports RIM’s award winning push e-mail solution. On the note of e-mail, however, a recurring issue we heard about in other reviews was the reliability of sending and receiving e-mails. We had absolutely no problems doing either - in fact, we were set up and ready to go in about ten minutes, using the 'E-Mail Settings' icon on the phone. This was a well-documented problem of the older operating system build, so we're guessing that they were running the older 4.6.1.83 build at the time.

The two-megapixel camera wasn't much to write home about. Pictures were decent enough when lighting was perfect, but dreary days and low-light areas left a lot to be desired. Pictures taken in undesirable conditions came out dark and grainy, and the shutter lag posed a problem for taking pictures on the fly. After taking the picture, the user can rename it, and adjust White Balance, Picture Size, Picture Quality, and Color Effects.

In regards to reception, the phone was tested in various places throughout the city, and for the most part, was a decent performer. Calls did drop more frequently when outside of the city limits or off of the main highways. Unfortunately, due to the fact that we know no one with a Nextel handset, we weren’t able to conduct a Direct Connect test. There was a noticeable amount of white noise during calls, but in fairness, these problems should be partially blamed on Sprint's iDEN coverage area, and not completely on the phone itself. Based on testing, one could fault the internal antenna - since iDEN devices are fairly new to having internal antennas, reception on the 8350i versus the i880, for example, is noticeable. Throughout the history of the technology, however, iDEN has always proved to be a bit frustrating on the reception front. Essentially, when the phone shows anything less than three bars, the user must be cautious, as the call can suddenly drop.

The device ships with a 1,400mAh lithium ion battery. In our tests, battery life was slightly higher than what a CDMA BlackBerry Curve would provide, usually lasting for about a day under heavy usage (calls, messages, BlackBerry Messenger), and extending to a day and a half with light use (messaging only). We were able to make about five hours worth of calls before the battery would die, but the test was a combination of e-mail, text messaging, and phone calls.

Conclusion

For the most part, the device is a pleasure to use, and is a respectable addition to the BlackBerry lineup. Furthermore, it is a tremendous upgrade for iDEN BlackBerry users, who have been forced to use the BlackBerry 7100i for the past few years. The device is up to date in both hardware and software, and breaths life into an otherwise antiquated lineup of Nextel devices. The core decision as to whether to purchase centers around what the device will be used for. If Direct Connect is a necessity, the phone will make a great companion. If looks alone are the motivating factor, one has to consider the tradeoffs. The device does run OS 4.6 and sports various design modifications from the original Curve, however it is still powered by an iDEN radio, and as a result, slow data speeds, unreliable text messaging, and somewhat questionable call quality is to be expected. We would recommend visiting the store to check out the device before a purchase is made.


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