Technology

At Last, BlackBerry Goes Wi-Fi


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Editor's Rating: star rating

While its two new models can't compete with Apple's iPhone in Web browsing, they surf the Internet at faster speeds than most cell phones

BlackBerry users are generally a happy bunch, so complaints about the device rarely reach a fever pitch (except when there's an outage). It's still hard to beat BlackBerry for mobile e-mail. And lately, Blackberry's maker has shown it can innovate with style and multimedia as well.

Yet there is one area where BlackBerry has never led the pack: mobile Web access. This shortcoming has been made all the more glaring by the fabulous surfing capabilities of Apple's (AAPL) new iPhone. Part of the blame lies with the sluggish nature of cellular Internet connections; part belongs to the BlackBerry, which like most handheld devices, simply isn't equipped with an optimal screen and browser for viewing Web pages.

Ease of Hookup

Well, the two latest BlackBerry models from Research In Motion (RIMM) resolve part of the problem. The full-size 8820 and midsize Curve 8320 mark the long-awaited arrival of Wi-Fi on BlackBerry. Neither surfs the Web with the elegance of an iPhone, but both finally let BlackBerry users connect with wireless hotspots and access the Internet at far greater speeds than most mobile phones can, even those with so-called 3G (third-generation) cell technology.

The 8820 is available exclusively through AT&T (T) for $300 with a two-year service contract, or for $500 with no new commitment for existing subscribers. The new Curve is available through T-Mobile (DT) for $250 with contract and $450 without.

The Wi-Fi connections on these devices really do make a noticeable difference compared with the EDGE cellular technology that handicaps Web usage on previous BlackBerry models from AT&T and T-Mobile. While EDGE is perfectly adequate for BlackBerry e-mail, its maximum download speed is about twice as fast as with an old dial-up Internet connection. Verizon (VZ) and Sprint Nextel (S) offer BlackBerry devices with cellular technology that's almost on par with an entry-level DSL or cable modem connection, but the surf speed comes nowhere near that of a strong Wi-Fi signal.

Quick-Draining Battery

Pairing the new BlackBerry phones with Wi-Fi networks was incredibly simple. This came as quite a relief, given how friendly I've become with Verizon's overseas help desk in recent months troubleshooting connections between my wireless router, two laptops, and an iPhone. Within minutes, I successfully connected the BlackBerry to my home router, as well as Wi-Fi networks in two other locations.

But alas, even when connected via Wi-Fi, BlackBerry's browser is still no match for the unfettered Web. Though compatible with the format used to view Web sites on a computer, BlackBerry's browser displays content adapted for a handheld screen wherever possible, rather than displaying pages as you'd see them on the desktop. Many of these sites are watered down and look jagged in layout. Having seen the promised land of full mobile surfing on an iPhone, it's hard to be satisfied by this second-city presentation of the Internet.

Beyond the addition of Wi-Fi, these two new BlackBerrys are virtually identical to the 8800 and Curve devices launched earlier this year—and that helps explain another drawback: They use the same batteries to power three different wireless signals (cellular, Bluetooth, and now Wi-Fi) instead of two. RIM says it has tinkered with the software to minimize the Wi-Fi drain, but the battery still runs low more quickly than on a cellular-only device.

One power-saving strategy is to turn the Wi-Fi beacon off when you're out and about, then flip it on whenever you come within range of a hotspot. This only takes a few clicks to accomplish, yet it's enough of a chore that I opted to leave it on at all times, whatever the battery-depleting consequences.

None of this grumbling, however, should be taken to suggest that I'd opt for a BlackBerry without Wi-Fi. No way.

Full of Features

And it's not really fair to compare a BlackBerry to the iPhone, which owes its ease of surfing to a 3.5-inch display and touch-screen zoom, and therefore lacks the space for the full keyboard that makes BlackBerry such a champ for e-mail. Further, iPhone won't connect with most corporate e-mail systems. And regardless of browser deficiencies, the addition of Wi-Fi succeeds in making BlackBerry a more relevant tool for Web usage. Very quickly, I found myself using the 8820 for certain online tasks instead of flipping open a laptop.

The new Curve is also compatible with T-Mobile's new HotSpot @Home. That service lets the phone make calls via the cellular network or Wi-Fi, whichever signal is stronger, and even switch from one to the other without interrupting a conversation. The 8820 is equipped for this feat, but AT&T says it has no plans to offer this option.

From an entertainment perspective, both the 8820 and the Curve offer a robust player for music and video, as well as external memory slots to hold extra gigabytes of songs and photos. But only the more consumer-friendly Curve boasts a digital camera and a jack for stereo headphones. On the other side of the ledger, the 8820 features GPS satellite capability for maps and driving directions.

I've been more of a fan of the Curve because it's a little smaller, making it easier to carry in a pocket and grip as a phone. Whichever suits you better, the more important point is obvious: Wi-Fi has arrived in Blackberry's impressive lineup, giving CrackBerry addicts one more reason to stay hooked.

Meyerson is Deputy Technology Editor for BusinessWeek.com.

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