BlackBerry Buying Guide

The BlackBerry was a popular item over the Black Friday weekend, as many major carriers ran cell-phone specials. Those deals are expected to continue until Christmas. The following is a BlackBerry buying guide for U.S.-based users.

Current High-End BlackBerry devices

BlackBerry Bold 9700 : Available on AT&T ( T) and Deutsche Telekom's ( DT) T-Mobile USA, this is the GSM flagship device in the traditional BlackBerry form factor. It has all the latest components and therefore the best performance fromprocessor speed to battery life. Keep in mind that for high-speed packet access, or HSPA, the AT&T and T-Mobile USA versions are incompatible with each other's networks.

New BlackBerry Not So Bold

BlackBerry Tour 9630: Available on Verizon ( VZ) and Sprint ( S), this model is similar in most ways to the Bold 9700 , with four major exceptions: (1) No WiFi; (2) TrackBall instead of TrackPad; (3)smaller battery; and (4) inability to simultaneously transmit data and circuit-switched voice. The Tour 9630 will be replaced probably mid- to late January by the Tour 9650, which adds WiFi and TrackPad, substantially closing the gap with the Bold 9700 .

BlackBerry 9550/Storm2: Available on Verizon, this is the touchscreen(480x360) BlackBerry, competing directly with Apple's ( AAPL) iPhone,because it lacks a traditional keyboard. Keyboard and screen aside, itis functionally identical to the Tour 9630, except it adds WiFi.

Five U.S. BlackBerry carriers

1. T-Mobile: Operates GSM at 1900 MHz and HSPA on 1700 MHz (upstream) and 2100 MHz (downstream). T-Mobile is cheaper than AT&T and Verizon Wireless, with pricing in line with Sprint. All-in unlimited domestic use is $100 a month. Unfortunately, T-Mobile doesn't offer an unlimited international data roaming plan for the BlackBerry any more, as the plan only includes email and web browsing. T-Mobile's main differentiation is that all its BlackBerrys have UMA software, which has several advantages when you can access a WiFi network:
  • Flawless coverage, which improves sound quality.
  • It's free to call the U.S. when you're abroad, saving $1 a minute or more.
  • You can be on the phone and still send or receive emails or surf the Web simultaneously.

2. AT&T: Operates GSM and HSPA at both 850 MHz and 1900 MHz. Prices are similar to Verizon Wireless, and, therefore, more expensive thanT-Mobile and Sprint. AT&T will become a more attractive operator onceit launches LTE on 700 MHz in late 2011. Unfortunately, unless you are an "approved business customer," AT&T's international data roaming plans are only bought in chunks -- 20, 50, 100 megabytes -- as no unlimited plan is available to individual consumers.

3. Verizon Wireless: Operates CDMA and EV-DO at both 850 MHz and 1900MHz. Verizon is known to have the best general outdoor networkcoverage, although, of course, it can't compete with UMA-over-WiFi in the home, which only T-Mobile offers. Verizon will become a much more attractive operator once it launches LTE on 700 MHz in late 2010 (data) and late 2011 (voice). Verizon offers a non-WiFi femtocell,but it doesn't work nearly as well as T-Mobile's WiFi solution. Verizon offers unlimited international data roaming for an incremental$35 a month.

4. Sprint: Operates two networks, but the only one worth mentioning is its CDMA and EV-DO networks at 1900 MHz. Just like T-Mobile USA, Sprint offers an "everything" plan for $100. Sprint offers a non-WiFi femtocell, but it doesn't work nearly as well as T-Mobile's WiFi solution. Sprint offers unlimited international data roaming for an incremental $40 a month.

5. MetroPCS: Operates CDMA and EVDO at 1700, 1900 and 2100 MHz, but does not cover all major cities with the BlackBerry. However, for thosewho will only be in those cities, MetroPCS offers by far the lowest prices of any carrier at $50 a month for unlimited everything. In addition, MetroPCS is the only carrier offering unlimited calling and SMS to many international phone numbers for $5 a month. Apart from the inferior national coverage, MetroPCS only offers one BlackBerry handset (8330) ,which is now considered out-of-date.

Current Low-End BlackBerry Devices

BlackBerry Curve 8900: Available on T-Mobile and AT&T, this device is somewhat similar to the Bold 9700 , except: (1) No HSPA/3G; (2) slower processor; (3) smaller battery; and (4) no TrackPad. It'sbasically just like the Tour 9630, minus the EVDO/3G, but plus theWiFi.

BlackBerry Curve 8520 : Available on T-Mobile and AT&T, this is theentry-level classic BlackBerry form factor. It's similar to the Curve 8900 except (1) smaller battery; (2) no camera flash; (3) 2.0 MP camera instead of 3.2 MP,;(4) TrackPad, ; (5) no GPS; (6) lower-resolution screen.

BlackBerry Curve 8530: Available on Sprint and Verizon, this modelis similar to the Curve 8520 except it adds GPS and EVDO ("3G").

BlackBerry 8200 series: These models (8220 on T-Mobile, 8230 onVerizon) are smaller BlackBerrys that are flip phones, sort of likethe old iconic Motorola ( MOT) Razr. The screens are smaller, the keyboardscontain two main characters per key, and they have a relatively small1100 MAh battery. Memory is 128 MB and the connector is MicroUSB.

It is possible that AT&T may start carrying the 8220 soon, and it'spossible that Sprint may carry the 8230 at some point as well.

BlackBerry 8100 series: These models (8110 on AT&T, 8120 on AT&T andT-Mobile, 8130 on Sprint and Verizon) differ from the otherBlackBerrys in two main respects: First, the screen is smaller, andsecond, the keyboard is abbreviated to containing two main charactersper key; functioning the so-called SureType system. The battery isalso on the smaller side at 1100 MAh. The 8110 is GSM and has GPS, the8120 has WiFi, and the 8130 is CDMA and has GPS. Memory is only 64MB and the screen resolution is the lowest of any BlackBerry.

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Anton Wahlman was a sell-side equity research analyst covering the communications technology industries from 1996 to 2008: UBS 1996-2002, Needham & Company 2002-2006, and ThinkEquity 2006-2008.

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