A Preview of OS 4.7.1 on the BlackBerry Tour & More Initial Impressions...
** Be Sure to Read Part I - BlackBerry Tour Hardware Review & Comparison **
* Update - It looks like the BlackBerry 9630 might just have an official name to be branded under... the BlackBerry Tour 9630! *
Surprising to us, our little spur-of-the-moment April Fool's joke yesterday caught more than a few readers out in initially believing it as true (don't worry, it happens to the best of us!). So to get back any CrackBerry love that may have been lost for aggrevations caused, we figured the timing was right to follow up our initial BlackBerry 9630 Hands-On Hardware Review with a second look, now that we've had a chance to get some up and running usage time on the 9630 and its version 4.7.1 operating system. If you're one of the many BlackBerry users out there waiting for the "Niagara" to hit a CDMA carrier near you, you'll want to check this out!
* Disclaimer: Like all of our pre-release reviews, please note that as of yet this is still a non-commercially available device which means things could change by the time it comes to market. *
A Note About the Pre-Release Device Review
In the case of the 9630 unit reviewed here, the hardware really appears to be quite solid. Compared to other pre-release BlackBerry reviews I have conducted, this unit in particular has the appearance/feel of being commercial grade (ie. not a prototype, but full-out production line quality).
In the case of the operating system, this review is based on the 9630 running OS application version 126.96.36.199. By all accounts this app version is very early-stage, which is apparent in using the device. Some of the screens (ex. phone app, camera app) still need to be dressed with proper skins and there are some weird glitches that will of course be ironed out (ex. dialing a contact using speed dial seems to turn on speakerphone without the device knowing it's on - you can't turn it off!). RIM never stops the ongoing development of their device operating systems even once a model begins selling, so it's safe to say the 9630 will be a smooth operator when it becomes available for purchase and will only continue to get better from there. Even with this early software and running the unit on GSM (Rogers) the 9630 has been quite stable with just a couple of random reboots here and there.
BlackBerry Tour Hardware Review Recap and Comparisons
In case you missed Part I of our Tour review, you'll definitely want to check it out before reading any further. In it I line the BlackBerry Tour 9630 up against its siblings and offer up a whack load of images and initial hardware impressions and provide an overview of what the 9630 is all about. For your viewing pleasure and back by popular demand, I've re-included the hands-on hardware video below which shows of the device to the musical stylings of Al Green :-)
BlackBerry Tour Initial Usage Impressions & OS 4.7.1 Preview
It's one thing to bring you a hands-on hardware review of a device that's not powered up but it's a whole other (and much better) thing to relay some thoughts and opinions and screen captures and video after having some real hands-on usage.
The Tour's hardware itself had me impressed. Actually putting it to use pretty much has me tickled pink (or is it tickled black...berry?). The keyboard is awesome, the display is looking good, and the form factor is a good fit - both in the hand and to carry around for everyday use.
The 9630's version 4.7.1 device software is also interesting. Just like the 9630's hardware is a blend of BlackBerry Bold, Curve 8900 and Storm, the 9630's operating system gives off the impression of being a hybrid of 4.6 found on the Bold and 8900 and 4.7 found on the Storm. The 9630 obviously is not a touch screen device, though many of the underpinnings of the Storm's 4.7 OS are there, while the native Precision Zen theme is straight out of 4.6. It also appears there's even some all new stuff included in 4.7.1 - unless my memory is really bad, I don't recall ever seeing Memory Statistics as a menu option within the Media Player before. The short video below takes a quick look at the 9630 and some of 4.7.1's features.
It should be noted too that 4.7.1 on the 9630 looks pretty much identical to what I have glimpsed so far in terms of OS 5.0 on the Bold and Curve 8900. So if you read through this and wish your current BlackBerry's OS looked more like 4.7.1, don't worry... it likely will sooner than later. In fact, depending on when the 9630 gets released, I wouldn't be surprised to see it labeled with OS 5.0 instead of 4.7.1. I'm sure we'll see some Bold / Curve 8900 5.0 screencaps emerge soon that will show that 4.7.1 and 5.0 on these latest generation BlackBerry models are basically one and the same.
App Version 4.7.1 Observations
For the most part, the operating system experience on the BlackBerry 9630 is no different than that of the Bold or Curve 8900, but there are definitely a few 4.7 benefits that make this the sweetest trackball BlackBerry OS yet.
Earlier versions of the OS said "Niagara" on the About screen. BlackBerry 9630 it is?!!
Menu Key Application Switcher - I'm one of those BlackBerry users who traditionally keeps the left side convenience key set to the Application Switcher. Though the BlackBerry OS is a multi-tasker, unless you do this and actually use the Application Switcher you almost don't notice that the device is even multi-tasking (running apps in the background) since you're always exiting to the homescreen to re-enter apps. One of my favorite features of the BlackBerry Storm is that you can activate the Application Switcher by holding down the main BlackBerry menu key. This awesome and intuitive function (multiple dots to the BlackBerry logo... multiple apps running... makes sense to me!) has made it's way onto the 9630. The best news for BlackBerry users of course is that this same feature has also made its way onto the latest versions of the 4.6 OS for the Bold and 8900 as well (unofficial/leaked versions) so hopefully we'll soon see all trackball BlackBerry smartphones updated to include this.
Hold down on the Menu key to activate the Application Switcher
Trackball Gestures - If you check out the OS video above, you'll note that when viewing photos within the media app you can now scroll left and right to go to your next and previous photos. Definitely nicer than hitting N and P.
Profiles Menu - When you go to your profiles icon in OS 4.5 or 4.6 and scroll down, you're met with the Advanced option at the bottom, which doesn't really mean all that much unless you click it and do some exploring. With OS 4.7 you're met with Set Ring Tones/Alerts, Set Contact Alerts and Custom Profiles which definitely make it more clear on what you can do and how to get there. Definitely a welcome addition to trackball BlackBerry Smartphones.
Instead of just having Advanced, OS 4.7 makes editing Profiles a little more clear
Storm Menus - Another area where the Tour's OS really seems Storm-like is on menus and submenus, where the OS features 4.7's bubbly option boxes. The visual appearance is enough to make you want to start tapping on the screen, but don't do it - this is still a trackball BlackBerry. I'm still waiting for the day that RIM greatly overhauls/simplifies their Options menu to be more consumer friendly (and to change the icon from Options to something other than a Wrench... a Wrench is for Tools, not Options).
Don't you just want to tap those drop downs with your finger??
Memory - Memory is a bit of a hardware/software thing, so we'll cover it here. In our last review we said that the guts of the 9630 are basically that of the Storm. And that's true in the case of the processor and radio. One area that's different though is MEMORY. While the Bold and the Storm have 128 megs of device memory (for OS, apps, emails, browser cache to reside), the BlackBerry 9630 takes after the Curve 8900 and offers double the memory. Instead of having 30 - 45 megs of free space for apps like the Storm has by default, the 9630 has roughly 130 megs free. More memory is always better!
While the 9630 has double the app memory of the Storm, it does not have the 1 gig of built-in device memory for ringtones, movies, etc. No big deal though...that's what memory cards are for.
Like the Curve 8900, the BlackBerry 9630 gets a bump up in application memory
Memory Statistics - I could be wrong (don't shoot me if I am!), but I **think** this is new to OS 4.7.1. Within the Media application, when you hit the menu key there is now an option for Memory Statistics that allows you to view your device and media card memory along with the allocation of those resources. Bold and Curve 8900 owners should see this on their device with the future release of OS 5.0. Maybe this is the precursor to a full-out device memory manager coming our way in a future OS??!
BlackBerry Media Memory Statistics
All in all, OS 4.7.1 on the BlackBerry 9630 should make for a solid BlackBerry experience. If you're currently a BlackBerry owner on a CDMA carrier using a Curve 8330 or 8830, moving up to the 9630 will be a delight. And if you're a Storm owner on Verizon, Telus or Bell and think you want to move away from a touch BlackBerry but still be a CrackBerry Addict, the transition to a 9630 will be an easy one for you.
More BlackBerry Tour 9630 Hardware Impressions
In our first-look review I reported back with a quite a few observations on the 9630's hardware, but now that I've spent a little more time actually using the device I figured an update on a few items are in order.
Keyboard / Form Factor - I realllly like typing on the 9630's keyboard. It's not quite as roomy as the Bold's keyboard, nor does it have the 'clackiness' that I love of the Curve's keyboard, but thanks to the Bold-influenced key design it's easy to type on accurately and the tighter package means you don't have to move your fingers as far to get the job done, which helps in the both the speed and endurance departments.
Like the 8900, the physical space allotted for the trackball and navigation/phone buttons above the keyboard is less than the Bold, so you need to pay a little more attention to where you're tapping. I wouldn't think of this as a problem, but it's for sure a trade off of having a smaller form factor.
Between the Curve 8900, 9630 and Bold 9000, it kind of reminds of ordering popcorn at the theatre and choosing between Small, Medium and Large (that's Tall, Grande and Venti for the Starbucks crowd). In a perfect world, it would actually be nice if RIM made a GSM-only 9600 version of this device and they'd also offer a CDMA version of the Curve and 9000-ish form factor, so regardless of your carrier you could pick the trackball full-qwerty device that suits your hands best.
Display - Like all of these latest generation BlackBerry smartphones (exception BlackBerry Pearl Flip), the display on 9630 is top notch. I'm sure there's a lot of software coding behind the scenes that also affects the image you actually see on the screen, and am sure there is still some tweaking going on in that department. If you watch the video above, you'll note the video camera picks up the screen refresh lines on the 9630 (which never seems to happen to me on any other BlackBerry). I also noticed that compared to the 8900 when playing the same John Mayer preloaded sample video that the video quality seemed a bit better on the 9630. However, when scrolling through the preloaded sample photos the colors on my 8900 were a bit more vibrant and crisp. Suffice to say, I'm sure RIM will be tweaking all of this up to balance out picture quality and power consumption and everything else, and you can expect the 9630 you buy will have a pleasing screen. That all said, I do wish there was a way for RIM to get the edge of display closer to the edge of the device. I love the quarter inch of extra width the Bold's display offers, and wish the 8900 and 9630 could offer that without having to make the device any wider.
Displays Compared: BlackBerry 9630 on the left, Curve 8900 on the right
Backlighting - Ok, now this one is a bit weird to touch on, but I'm going there anyway. One of the gripes I hear about the 8900 fairly often (and I gripe about this myself) is the poor back lighting on the green/red Send/End keys. For some reason they fade dark towards the edges. I wasn't sure on the 8900 if this was by design or more of a hardware fault, but after seeing the 9630's awesome backlighting am leaning towards fault on part of the 8900. Either that, or to maximize battery life RIM turned down the brightness come commercial release. I'll be curious to see just how bright the 9630's backlighting is when it hits the market... hopefully as bright as it is now!
In the dark: Curve 8900, BlackBerry 9630, Bold 9000
Everything Else - Seems pretty darn good! Voice quality is excellent, speakers loud and clear, the camera and video player seem to work well from my initial usage. I'm sure as the OS makes it's move up from 188.8.131.52 to whatever it ultimately gets released with, all of these things will get better as things get tweaked out.
BlackBerry Tour - Can't Come Soon Enough!
The BlackBerry 9630 will be a welcome addition to the BlackBerry Smartphone line up. Honestly, IMO this device can't be announced soon enough or become available for sale soon enough. CDMA users need a next-generation full qwerty BlackBerry. The good news is, it's worth waiting for. Hopefully this review will help make the wait just a little bit easier.