BlackBerry phone hits the hotspot with VoIP

RIM's pocket-sized, dual-mode QWERTY handset taps Wi-Fi and IP telephony for clear, unlimited T-Mobile HotSpot calling

The quality of the camera hardware and software in the Curve 8900 caught me by surprise. RIM chose its camera supplier exceedingly well, and it uses the Curve 8900's fast CPU to great advantage. The built-in camera uses a 3.2-megapixel (2048x1536) sensor behind an autofocus lens. A white LED functions as a focus aid, a flash, and a video light. I found that Curve could shoot acceptable stills without pre-adjustment in a number of challenging conditions, including low light, moving subjects, and close focus (down to about two inches). The shutter delay for a pre-focused shot, where the shutter button is held down halfway until you're ready to shoot, is an uncommonly short fraction of a second. Images can be "geotagged," or marked with embedded location metadata using the Curve 8900's internal GPS, while you shoot. You can shoot movies in fixed focus at a paltry (but EDGE-friendly) resolution of 240x176. The fast CPU prevents motion blur even in low light, and the massive image oversampling affords a measure of image stabilization. Movies are stored on the SDHC card in MPEG-4 format with a .3GP file extension, which should open directly in any desktop or mobile mail client. Third-party movie recording software will likely do better when it emerges.

VoIP over Wi-Fi

I already had a T-Mobile HotSpot@Home wireless router and rate plan set up when I received the BlackBerry Curve 8900 for review. The new BlackBerry GUI features locally executing configuration wizards, one of which sets up Wi-Fi. Like any Wi-Fi handset, the Curve 8900 will associate with any 802.11b/g network for surfing and such, but when the conditions are right, hooking up with Wi-Fi causes the EDGE indicator to be replaced by one that reads UMA. "Unlicensed Mobile Access" isn't very descriptive. What it means, very simply, is that when you're within reach of an appropriate private (mine is protected by WPA2 security) or public T-Mobile HotSpot Wi-Fi network, your data and voice traffic can be streamed over 802.11g rather than GSM/EDGE. The Curve 8900 switches networks seamlessly and automatically, even while a call is in progress.

UMA is not VoIP as you know it; there's no special telephone number, there is no additional service provider, no need for special equipment on your end. You use your regular T-Mobile cellular number and Curve 8900 phone, oblivious to the fact that you're making Wi-Fi calls (unless you notice the UMA indicator on the display, the instantaneous call connections, or the landline sound quality). Toward the end of each month, you might also notice that your bill is a lot smaller. With an appropriate unlimited HotSpot plan, there are no per-minute charges for local or long distance calls that are handled via Wi-Fi. You don't have to overbuy daytime minutes to use T-Mobile cellular as a landline replacement, and you also don't need to hassle with signing up a VoIP provider and configuring equipment. I've only been using UMA as a primary line for a little more than a week, so I can't say I'd yank the copper out of the wall. I can say that so far, I've found the quality to be excellent and the switching completely seamless. The only drawback I see to UMA is that Wi-Fi drains the battery more rapidly on standby than cellular, but RIM still has the market's best story where power management is concerned.

The BlackBerry Curve 8900 is a winner. It's a next-gen BlackBerry through and through, with a fast CPU, a high-res screen, and a slick, high-function GUI, fully equal to professional and enterprise messaging duty despite cutting a smaller and less formal profile. Its media features fit the lifestyle bill nicely. Even without UMA Wi-Fi calling, the Curve 8900 is a worthy and competitively priced smartphone, but UMA support and T-Mobile HotSpot flat-rate plans give the Curve 8900 the edge when it comes to keeping a lid on monthly telecommunications bills.

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