Despite a rather conservative past, RIM has been advancing by leaps and bounds in the last six months or so. The Storm made a splash as the first touch-screen BlackBerry, the Pearl Flip folded its way into history as the first clamshell BlackBerry, and the Bold stood out as the very first 3G BlackBerry. With siblings that carry the BlackBerry name forward in so many ways, it’s easy to dismiss the Curve 8900 as more of the same from the Canadian company. But that would be a mistake. Despite its somewhat dated EDGE modem, the Curve 8900 makes a number of significant, if not necessarily earth-shattering, improvements to the traditional BlackBerry, without sacrificing what has drawn the company such a rock solid fan base to begin with.
Features and Design
Compared to the previous-generation Curve 8300 series, which RIM introduced back in 2007, the 8900 stands apart mostly because of a striking weight-loss plan. It weighs only 110 grams, and measures just a bit over half an inch thick, making it a featherweight by smartphone standards. It feels more on par, in the hand and in the pocket, with what you might expect from a traditional clamshell or candybar phone. That makes it one of the most comfortable to carry smartphones we’ve ever tested.
RIM’s smart choice of materials also help in that regard. The sides have been wrapped in a soft-feeling black plastic, while the front-facing edges have a muted steel finish that gives off a nice shine without marring as more reflective chrome would. All of these contribute to the phone’s sophisticated air, without turning it into a museum piece that can’t be handled, or adding unnecessarily to weight.
A 2.44-inch LCD screen consumes most of the flat real estate on the front of the Curve, while a full QWERTY keyboard and strip of typical BlackBerry controls (call, menu, trackball, escape, and end call) stand between the two. On the right edge, you’ll find a standard 3.5mm stereo jack for headphones, a rocker button for dedicated music controls, as well as a camera shutter button and microUSB jack. The top has discreet buttons for locking the keyboard and muting the ringer, while the left has a soft button that can serve a variety of functions (initiate a voice dial, skip tracks, etc.) A small rectangle carved out of the battery door on the top of the back houses both a 3.2-megapixel camera and LED flash. SIM and microSD cards go under the battery cover, which pops off easily after sliding up a spring-loaded clip on the bottom.
RIM’s Achilles Heel
Though the Curve will pull off all the typical tricks you would expect from a smartphone, including e-mail, Web browsing, music and video, it does lag behind most of its competitors in one critical spec: Internet speed. The Curve 8900 uses a conventional EDGE modem, while most current-gen smartphones have moved on to significantly faster 3G speeds at this point. This weak backbone of smartphone functionality hinders the Curve whenever it goes to access data on the Web, translating into sluggish browsing, slow application downloads, and even choppy map scrolling.
Screen and Keyboard
Fortunately, it makes up for this in a number of other respects. Perhaps the most notable, which presents itself as soon as you turn on the phone, is the astoundingly crisp screen. RIM has condensed all the resolution of a much larger screen (480 x 360, to be exact) down into the compact 2.44-inch footprint. This tight dot pitch, combined with a powerful backlight, produces on-screen images that look almost print-like in their clarity. Small text, especially, benefits from the abundance of pixels, which makes even super-shrunken text readable.
The keyboard, though narrower than what you would find on the Bold, will allow fast typists to really slam out e-mails and text messages after a short period of practice. Thumbs can really dance across it quickly because of its small size. Discreet texters might be annoyed by the audible click the keys produce when depressed, but we appreciated the clean tactile feedback.
Dialing with the tiny digits printed in red over the QWERTY keypad is of course a little more difficult than with a dedicated number pad, but we adjusted in no time. Call quality rated extremely high on both ends, with crisp voice, and calling parties reporting that the Curve came through exceptionally loud on their end.
RIM claims a battery life of 15 days of standby and 5.5 hours of talk time for the Curve. Though we weren’t able to benchmark the talk time, we were fairly impressed with the way the Curve held its charge through our other testing. After a solid day of surfing, texting, playing music, and other dabbling, the phone still held over three fifths of a charge, which is far more than we can say of an iPhone after the same exercise. EDGE modems, though slow, do go a lot easier on the juice than their thirsty 3G brothers.
The operating system on the 8900 will be familiar to BlackBerry owners, but it’s also marked by a number of changes also seen in the Bold. T-Mobile’s rotating carousel of five “MyFaves” contacts takes center screen on the home page, while buttons for six separate applications are lined up conveniently below for quick access. Pressing the menu key from this main screen brings up a grid of most other options, which are easy to navigate among using the smooth-scrolling trackball. Besides looking quite sharp, the OS flips to different pages and applications at nearly the same speed you can click on them.
Though EDGE speed turns out to be a major hindrance for the browser, it otherwise manages to load pages quite briskly, as our Wi-Fi tests proved. We were able to load the front page of Digital Trends in nine seconds, compared to 22 seconds on EDGE. An iPhone, by comparison, did the same test in 10 seconds on the same Wi-Fi. When surfing, the trackball controls a cursor, which can be used either to click on links or zoom in on different pieces of the page. It produces a very intuitive, PC-like browsing experience. However, we did encounter all-too-frequent errors with pages being awkwardly rendered or having major graphical glitches, so there’s certainly room for improvement on RIM’s end, too.
The phone’s 3.2-megapixel camera stands out as one of its feature highlights. The side-shutter button makes it quick to pull up, and holding it down halfway puts the camera through a quick autofocus routine that makes it possible to nab shots of everything from a keyboard up close to distant mountains, clearly. The final shots consistently looked good, but as we’re used to seeing with camera phones, whites were sometimes blown out, and plenty of digital noise will crop up in lowlight situations.
RIM includes an acceptable pair of headphones (with one-button pause/play control,) a wall charger, a USB data cable, and a leather sleeve with every BlackBerry Curve 8900. The faux leather pocket, while not exactly the pinnacle of stylish phone protection, serves as a nice safeguard for new owners until they decide to upgrade to something slimmer or more capable (like a belt clip).
What about music?
Though BlackBerrys have always been held up as productivity phones, rather than entertainment phones, we found that the Curve made a perfectly likeable PMP right off the bat. Music sounded fine with the included pair of earbuds, and downright impressive with the familiar Grado SR60s we used for reference. Even more surprising, the built-in speaker is one of the very best we’ve ever heard, easily outblasting the iPhone and rivaling Nokia’s XpressMusic 5610, which is specifically built for music. The fact that Pandora and Slacker are both available for free on BlackBerry App World doesn’t hurt its music cred, either. Unfortunately, we did experience some intermittent blips and and bloops while listening to Slacker – even over Wi-Fi – but that could just as much be a problem with the software as the phone.
“Do I really need 3G?”
That’s the question that potential buyers will have to ask themselves with the Curve 8900, which recommends itself in nearly every way, short of that all-critical speed test. While e-mail junkies, occasional map searchers, and even Internet radio listeners will probably find the Curve’s connectivity tolerable, frequent Web surfers, video addicts and app aficionados will be cursing its slow-moving download bar by the end of day one. If you can deal with this major caveat, its incredibly pocketable form factor, ultra-sharp screen, fast keyboard, and reasonable $150 price tag will all reward you for your patience. BlackBerry diehards who shuddered at RIM’s poor imitation of the iPhone in the Storm and shied away from the $300 price tag on the Bold will find plenty to like about the capable-but-humble Curve.
- Ultra-sharp screen
- Lightweight, compact
- Quick, intuitive interface
- 3.2-megapixel camera
- Decent accessories
- Respectable media player
- Superb sound quality
- Slow EDGE Internet
- Browser sometimes produces graphic glitches