RIM gives the BlackBerry Curve its largest and best update ever. (December 20th, 2008)
Product Manufacturer: Research in Motion
Price: $180 CDN (3 yr., Rogers)
- Gorgeous display.
- GPS and Wi-Fi together in a Curve for 1st time.
- Smaller form factor than Bold yet easy to type with.
- Above-average camera; now has video capture.
- Much improved web browsing and general OS.
- Good (but not perfect) call quality.
- UMA support.
- Display, GPS still have some limitations.
- Battery life a bit disappointing.
- UMA oversold; only really useful to specific users.
- microSDHC slot not externally accessible.
- Few major changes to media playback, other OS elements.
what's special: the display, GPS and Wi-Fi
It's almost literally impossible to discuss the Curve 8900 without being drawn to its display. At 480x360, the resolution (the same as for the Bold) is twice that of nearly every other non-touch smartphone available, and it shows: images, video and text "pop" because they're simply sharp enough to nearly resemble print. The screen is bright, too, and has a light sensor similar to the iPhone's that automatically brightens or dims the output depending on ambient light.
As one might expect, this not only does wonders for enhancing the perceived quality but also serves a practical benefit in certain parts of the BlackBerry OS. More items are visible than might have been otherwise in the main screens, and more of a website is visible at one time than before. Curiously, RIM hasn't made the default font sizes any smaller, though it's now possible to shrink the font two point sizes without losing much of any real legibility.
Some have called the display the best ever in the category, and we'd be inclined to agree, though there are still some quirks that could stand to be improved. The LCD is strictly a 16-bit (65,000 color) display and so frequently shows color banding on images with subtle gradients. Also, the viewing angle is relatively narrow and quickly washes out or inverts outside of common viewpoints. No one would expect to proof photos on a cellphone, but it's not quite as flawless as RIM would have you believe.
Aside from its screen, the 8900 is noteworthy as the first Curve to combine both GPS and Wi-Fi in a single model. The 8300 series was previously divided into models that had either GPS alone (8310/8330) or Wi-Fi (8320) and pushed subscribers into the uncomfortable choice of either knowing their positions or having strong Internet connections indoors. Just the reality of having both at once is, by itself, is a tremendous advantage.
Not much has changed on the GPS side of the device. The 8900 appears to have a quicker lock-in time, but the preloaded BlackBerry Maps software is virtually the same. It's clearly designed for a car passenger or pedestrian and is very effective there, but not for the driver. There's no automatic position following or voice guidance as there is with Nokia Maps, and so there's no way to simply start directions and keep a hands-off approach. Unlike Nokia's software, though, BlackBerry Maps is free to use (outside of bandwidth), and there are paid alternatives that can do more.
Wi-Fi works smoothly. Not surprisingly, Internet access is much faster when a connection is active, but it's also seamless once logged into access points; connection switching is automatic where the E71 requires a manual changeover to whichever data service is available. And for the Curve, which lacks 3G, this is essential. EDGE is usable when necessary but will always rule out graphics-heavy websites and a large amount of streaming content.
Notably, the Curve 8900 also supports Unlicensed Mobile Access, or UMA, to automatically make calls using VoIP when on Wi-Fi and on the cellular network elsewhere. On Rogers or (eventually) T-Mobile USA, this can potentially save the expense of a landline or a more expensive cellphone plan by offering unlimited calls from any Wi-Fi router attached to a fast-enough Internet connection. It also bridges calls by itself: if a call starts when the phone is on Wi-Fi, that call remains intact and even avoids chewing at regular plan minutes.
We didn't have time to test this extensively, but the quality and stability are good enough to be a deal maker for students and others who can depend solely on a cellphone for all their phone duties. There are still catches. Bridging can potentially be less than seamless if the phone isn't moved away quickly enough from the fringe of the Wi-Fi network, and carriers will still charge a disproportionately large premium to try and recoup costs. Rogers, for example, charges $20 CDN ($16 US) per month for unlimited calling to anyone within Canada and only while the call is made from inside Canada, making it a superfluous feature if the real goal is to minimize long distance charges altogether.