You don’t often hear “Wal-Mart” and “BlackBerry” in the same sentence. But RIM’s new Curve 8520 has been billed as the BlackBerry for the rest of us, available for just $50 at the country’s largest, and decidedly mass-market, retailer. This cheaper Curve certainly looks like a BlackBerry, acts like a BlackBerry, and has multimedia apps like most modern cellphones. But it only works on T-Mobile’s EDGE network, not the faster 3G backbone. So is BlackBerry throwing Wal-Mart shoppers a curve with this new cheaper version?
Features and Design
While the Curve 8520 lacks the design flourishes of the most recent BlackBerrys, its rather plain design harkens back to earlier Curve models, like the nondescript 8700 and 8800.
Beneath its rather pedantic surface are a surfeit of features for both work and pleasure, including full PIM sync, music and video players, full text, IM and, naturally, BlackBerry’s nonpareil e-mail capabilities. That includes complete Microsoft Office attachment viewing, reading and editing, and several other embedded apps, including direct links to Facebook, MySpace and other social networking sites. The BlackBerry App Store also offers hundreds of other apps. Inexplicably, the App Store app isn’t preloaded on the Curve – you have to download it yourself.
The Curve’s screen-over-QWERTY-keyboard form factor has become pretty standard for slab smartphones. Unlike previous BlackBerrys, the 8520’s edges are ringed with rubber to ensure a better grip.
Keys on the left side of the keyboard slope slightly up to the right, and keys on the right slope slightly up to the left, to make it easier to avoid tapping adjacent keys. On the frost-blue unit we reviewed, the alphanumeric icons were difficult to make out in direct light. And, as usual, the small number keys – all the keys are kind of tiny, actually – make it hard to direct dial.
The right side has three bump buttons under the rubber rim: two at the top for volume, and one in the middle to activate the camera. The left perimeter has a dimpled bump to activate the voice dialing below the microUSB jack, above which is the 3.5mm headphone jack. Up top are music play control buttons, a mute button, and a dedicated music speaker. The rear houses the 2-megapixel camera.
The microSD slot, good for up to a 32GB card, hides behind the battery cover, but you can leave the battery in to swap cards. A 1GB card comes preinstalled.
Above the keyboard is the navigation array, which doesn’t use BlackBerry’s typical track nipple, but a more responsive and easier to use track pad.
Can a phone serve as a workable PMP?
Using the included BlackBerry desktop software (which you also use to sync PIM and other files from a PC), you can load tracks. It offer the option to pull in either entire playlists, or random tracks from specific playlists, depending on how much space you have on your microSD card, from either iTunes or Windows Media Player. A Mac version to transfer tracks from iTunes is due in September.
While the Curve has no problem playing back MPEG-4 or HD H.264 videos – those usually captured by cheap camcorders, digital cameras and cellphones – on its bright and colorful 2.46-inch screen, it can’t handle QuickTime movies.
Music plays continuously and seamlessly under all applications. The sounds of music and movies blasted with plenty of volume and bass through the top speaker, albeit in mono.
Conversation quality at both ends of calls was as close to landline quality as we’ve ever experienced, with no network echo or warble. The phone produced in some of the crispest and cleanest cell conversations we’ve had.
The trackpad is a huge leap beyond BlackBerry’s (and everyone else’s) other navigation options. The tiny pad – it’s a quarter-inch square – is more functional and intuitively reactive than typical concentric circle nav arrays. You simply slide your thumb across it to move the cursor in any direction, and press it in to activate whatever lights up – simple and easy.
Even though the Curve runs only on T-Mobile’s EDGE network, the HTML browser is relatively responsive. Mobile-optimized pages such as CNN and ESPN load in around seven seconds, non-optimized pages load in 12 seconds or more, depending on graphic content. Thanks to BlackBerry’s submenu options, it’s easy to go to a specific URL, view history, bookmark pages, etc.
The Curve’s 2-megapixel camera takes surprisingly excellent pictures indoors and out, with plenty of preset exposure options. Snapshots are colorful, with as much detail as you’d expect from a 2-megapixel imager. Each step-up with the 5x zoom, however, reduces resolution, as if you were simply cropping a larger image.
The Curve can capture both half VGA and MMS-compatible QCIF videos. The former lack the usual digital artifacts you find when you blow up the footage, but suffer from jagged edges instead. But these are minor quibbles, since the videos are otherwise smooth.
RIM says you’ll get 4.5 hours of talk time, which is below average, even for sub-$100 phones. We managed to squeeze a whopping six-hours-plus of talk time out of the Curve in our unscientific tests, which is above average. Real-life runtimes from mixed usage, obviously, will be shorter.
Other than perhaps some missing style flourishes and the lack of 3G connectivity, the Curve 8520 is a real BlackBerry, with all the BlackBerry bells and whistles we’ve come to expect. Did we mention it’s just $50 at Wal-Mart? Excellent for both verbal and non-verbal communication and with plenty of entertainment and expansion options, the myriad-use Curve 8520 is an insane value, even if bought through T-Mobile at its regular price.
- BlackBerry e-mail, IM and text capabilities
- Excellent sound quality for both voice and media
- Able to read and edit Microsoft Office attachments
- Trackpad simplifies navigation
- Compatible with T-Mobile myFaves
- Surprisingly high quality 2-megapixel photos and HVGA video
- Small keypad difficult for direct dialing
- EDGE instead of 3G connectivity
- No preloaded BlackBerry App Store
- Can’t change menu themes