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.
Of all the phones in the BlackBerry lineup, the Curve is the one that makes or breaks RIM's performance as it's the most universally appealing: it has to suit not only the corporate rank and file but also those texting their friends or posting to Facebook. As such, more is riding on the success of the Curve 8900 than on even the media darling phones like the Bold or Storm. The new smartphone is technically superior to older Curves in nearly every way; our goal in the full review is to see whether that's enough to dislodge competition from Apple, Nokia, and a host of others.
design, controls and expansion
In the roughly two years of the BlackBerry Curve's existence, RIM has usually gone out of its way to separate the phone design-wise from its larger cousins, like the 8800 series. Not so with the 8900; while the new model has obvious styling changes, it looks much more like the Bold. That extends through to the build quality and choice of material. The new Curve may not have the leather-like backing, but in many other respects it's a match for its more expensive cousin. While a lot of it is marketing trickery -- the trim isn't chrome, and the back isn't brushed metal -- the construction is very sturdy without feeling heavy.
If anything, it's actually better in some regards than the Bold. The Curve is thinner and narrower than its counterpart, and so it's just that much easier to handle during a call or when in a pocket. It makes one wonder why RIM doesn't simply replace the Bold with a 3G Curve 8900; rumors suggest the company will, which may be a testament to a fundamentally sound logic in the design.
For all the refinements to its appearance, the smartphone's control isn't that much of a break from its predecessor, though some may see this more as a virtue than a vice. The Curve line has always used smaller, separated keys versus the near-seamless layout of the 8800 series or the Bold. It doesn't look quite as elegant, but it could well be considered preferable; in testing experience, both the older Curve 8330 and the 8900 have been more confidence inspiring, since the separation often means fewer accidental presses. Each key also has a short but definite travel which is more reassuring than the sometimes soft, mushy feel other mobile keyboards might have.
Compared to the Nokia E71 we've just reviewed, the BlackBerry's layout is arguably better. It does sacrifice the narrow design that made the E71 more of a pleasure for calls, but are fewer incorrect letters and less room for error. Sometimes a larger phone is worth the tradeoff.
Other controls are familiar and generally well-placed, including the trackball and the two programmable side buttons; the new model remains one of the easiest phones to use for voice dialing. There's no touchscreen as with the Storm, but the trackball is a great way to quickly scroll through icon-based menus or to point at specific links in the web browser. One touch new to the 8900 is the design of its 'hidden' unlock and mute buttons at the top: either is very easy to press, yet none of them trigger accidentally. This phone is by far one of the easiest phones to unlock or silence and doesn't require any unusual key combinations.
Ports and the expansion slot also haven't changed much, and unfortunately that's where a few (if admittedly small) problems creep in. The most glaring is the microSDHC slot, which again remains tucked under the back panel and prevents a quick swap. It's also notable that the industry-standard mini USB port has been replaced with a more proprietary connector. While thinner, it also hinders owners who previously could have borrowed a cable from a digital camera to sync their music or contacts.
RIM is saved primarily by market momentum here. When a microSDHC card can hold 16GB of data and people are more likely to upload photos to Flickr than print them out, there's less of a burning desire to fix these problems than there might have been even a year ago. And thankfully, the 3.5mm headphone jack is still in place and makes all the difference for some users; with the right storage and a good set of earphones, the 8900 does at least a passable job for music.