RIM creates a BlackBerry clamshell that could beat the Curve. (December 11th, 2010)
After intense pressure on the high end of smartphones, much of the BlackBerry's success in recent months has been at the low end: the Curve is now by far its most popular phone. The BlackBerry Style aims to take that to the next level with a very rare flip phone QWERTY design, BlackBerry 6 and the most advanced hardware in an entry BlackBerry to date. But is it enough to tempt those who would buy a low-end Android device or iPhone instead? Read our BlackBerry Style review to find out.
Product Manufacturer: Research in Motion
Price: $100 (Sprint, 2 yrs), $80 (Telus, 3 yrs)
- Clever external display.
- Surprisingly good 5MP camera.
- Responsive, comfortable keyboard.
- Bright main display.
- BB6 a major boost to web accuracy and more.
- Price is right if on a cheap plan.
- Short battery life.
- Android and iPhone more advanced for the price.
- App store, browser, maps not quite up to par.
- So-so call quality.
Design and the secondary display
The Style in many ways feels like a wide version of the short-lived Pearl Flip, although that's not a bad thing here. In the pocket, the clamshell isn't practically larger than its ancestor and is very easy to pull out for a quick phone check. Although the need to segment the phone bulks it up slightly versus a Curve 3G (from 0.55 inches to 0.73), there's not much difference. Despite having a superficially smooth texture, it's easy to grip, if slightly smudge-prone due to the excessive gloss and chrome-effect plastic.
When open, the Style greets you with the same 360x400 resolution as the Pearl 3G, albeit on a much larger screen. While we'd like a higher resolution to show more on the screen at once, we were overall quite happy: it's bright, vivid and has fairly wide viewing angles. Our main gripe is that it's still the same 65,000-color (16-bit) screen as before, so expect color banding artifacts with certain photos.
The full QWERTY keyboard is a key strong point and owes more to the Bold than to the Curve with sculpted rather than flat keys. We normally prefer the flat keys due to their sharp "click" action, but the Style appears to have solved this: it had the responsiveness of the Curve with the ergonomics that draw some to the Bold. As much as we increasingly skew towards touchscreen keyboards for their greater speed and the real estate they give back when done, the Style keyboard can certainly be used to type quickly, especially if you have a long history with the BlackBerry.
Ports and buttons are very typical and easy to reach, with a rubber grip on the sides. Curve owners who use their phones as music players might miss the dedicated music controls on the top, however; the hinge has taken them away.
Naturally, the centerpiece of the Style is its external display, designed as a way to save the trouble of opening the phone without leaving it unlocked and on. Here, it's fairly useful: a single press of the side button turns it on and will show how many new calls, e-mail and even social networking messages are available. Once on, the volume rocker lets you navigate through each item, and letting it sit at a notification with text will show a preview. It's not a substitute for reading the full message -- it's too small for this -- but it certainly achieves the goal of letting you decide whether a message is worth answering. Appropriately, flipping the phone open when you've got an item selected will jump directly to the message in question, which makes it a valuable time saver.
If there's a flaw to the external screen, it's that it doesn't show the preview immediately, which would save even more time. There's also the question of having such a relatively large external screen when protection was one of the main reasons flip phones have persisted. Still, if your work or social life revolves around knowing when to pick up or ignore your phone, it's a definite plus.
BlackBerry 6 on a non-touch phone
We've already had time with BlackBerry 6 on the Torch, so much of the experience will be familiar and a definite improvement over OS 5. Where it excels is in integrating the flow of social networking: Facebook, MySpace and Twitter updates can all appear in the Messages timeline much like e-mail or SMS, and picking one of these updates immediately jumps to the relevant app at the right area. The OS now has different trays for favorite apps and recents as well as media, and you can search the phone, web or apps just by typing at the home screen. Many of these features in their basic form were lifted from Palm's webOS, but that doesn't diminish their importance.
Using the OS on the Style takes on a different feel than on a touchscreen, but given the rough state of affairs on the Torch, we consider that a positive. With the touchpad as the only navigator, it wasn't hard to get around and do almost everything the Torch can do, although zooming in the browser, BlackBerry Maps or photos is considerably more painful without multi-touch. It becomes evident after using the Style for a few minutes that BB6 was designed to work both with and without touch, and because of the immediate nature of the touchpad, there isn't much lag. GPS was surprisingly quick to lock in, too; gone are the days of BlackBerry phones taking two minutes just to get their initial position.
Some of the fundamental gripes that we've encountered in the long term remain, however. Although the Style has 512MB of RAM, the processor is largely unchanged, and certain elements are noticeably very slow. The web browser still takes about twice as long to load a page than any other modern platform. It's also not uncommon to wait an interminable amount of time for what should be a quick loading process. Although these happen only periodically, we were frustrated when it took nearly 10 minutes to download and install an 800KB BlackBerry App World update that also required a long reboot. When an iPhone can download and install a 10MB app quickly without rebooting, that's a sign the BlackBerry isn't very efficient.
Media playback isn't the focus, but we'd still knock it down slightly as well. The players are intuitive, but they're also quite basic and could only count on-the-go playlist creation as the most advanced feature. Still, RIM does have a pair of advantages over Android: there's an official media sync app to pull content from an app like iTunes, and BlackBerry Podcasts is now built-in to download, subscribe to and play shows without having to touch a computer or get a third-party app.
Navigation and app selection still need improvement. In an era with Google Maps Navigation or even the built-in apps that Apple and Microsoft offer, BlackBerry Maps is slightly crude and doesn't have voice guidance, street-level views or public transit directions. App World is considerably better in 2.0 with greater discoverability, but it's still not as easy to find a specific app as in the iPhone's App Store, prices are almost always higher, and the lack of fast hardware graphics leaves gaming to very simple 2D titles.
Perhaps the greatest attack that can be levelled against the software is that, for all the changes, it often feels like lipstick on the proverbial pig. The pop-up menus, icons and user elements are often just prettier versions of what used to be text menus, but without changing how easy they are to use. We suspect things won't get truly better until RIM can bring some of the interface from the BlackBerry PlayBook to the smartphone, and that may take some time in this class of handset.
Still, while we've criticized some core parts of BB6, we also can't help but feel that the nature of the Style as an entry phone changes some of its worth. The browser is still too sluggish and the interface not as fundamentally improved as on Android, iOS or Windows Phone 7, but they're more forgivable when considering that many Style owners will either be jumping from a basic feature phone or won't even have a full smartphone data plan. It's easier to forgive some of the software flaws for the lower price and the target audience.
Camera and image quality
Snapping photos has improved slightly in BB6 . The most conspicuous upgrade is an emphasis on geotagging, but most of the changes involve putting more common settings (flash and scene presets) at the top. Camera settings here are a definite step back from the fine-grained control on some Android and WP7 phones we've tried, although they're more controllable than the ultra-simple iPhone layout. Quite obviously, there's no tap-to-focus. We also had a slight gripe with the nature of taking photos with a flip phone. Since the display is always slightly angled, taking a photo always tilts the LCD slightly off of a head-on view and makes it harder to guarantee a perfectly aligned shot.
The camera itself, though, could be considered the best feature of the phone after the external screen. At five megapixels with autofocus and flash, it's just as high resolution as the one in the Torch and is definitely above the quality of the very basic two-megapixel camera in the Curve 3G and the slightly better 3.2-megapixel camera in the Pearl 3G. There are very few of the classic symptoms of phone cameras: the image is sharp rather than smeared, relatively noise-free in good lighting and fairly color-accurate, if not necessarily vivid. Focusing was quick. We even got a mild bokeh effect (shallow depth of field), which is hard to induce on most any phone where the camera isn't a main feature. An 8GB microSDHC card is bundled and gives plenty of room.
It's not flawless. It's still somewhat prone to blurring in less than ideal light conditions, it doesn't have high dynamic range to compensate for high contrast light, and the single flash bulb won't cover a wide area. You'll still want to trade up to an iPhone 4 or Nokia N8 if photo quality matters most. Similarly, movie quality is a step back from the best. It's much more competent than in the past, but at 640x480 (VGA) it just can't compete with 720p and soon-to-come 1080p video recording. But, again, the step back is more acceptable at the prices carriers are asking.
Call quality and battery life
Surprisingly, call quality isn't a virtue. It sounded good enough on our end during test calls, but it was somewhat muddled and not piercingly clear in regular use. The speakerphone is better. Callers told a better story and said it was good, though not outstanding. RIM isn't helped by the need to use CDMA for Sprint, which doesn't have the fidelity of 3G calling on HSPA networks.
The one surprise we had while using the Style was battery life; unusually, it's short at 4.5 hours of talk and a similar amount for other intensive duties. We're used to BlackBerry phones being miserly, but the phone in both idling and active use is thirsty even compared to the giant-screened Samsung Focus we've been testing at the same time. Having Wi-Fi turned on likely affected our experience, but we've had other BlackBerry phones that were somewhat better. Much of this can be chalked up to the design itself. Needing to split the phone into two has apparently cut down on the size of the battery, and RIM is using a 1,150mAh battery in the Style where the Torch lasts longer on a 1,300mAh pack, even with a bigger screen. If you use your phone for frequent calls or data access during the workday, be prepared to charge up in the afternoon if you expect to use the phone at the nightclub.
In day to day use, the Style is enjoyable and is arguably a major step up from the Curve and Pearl, particularly when it comes to photography. Most of its appeal will be for traditionalists either for the BlackBerry or for messaging phones. If touchscreens are still intimidating or you're not willing to pay the price premium, this phone potentially hits the sweet spot. That's doubly true if you can get it without a data plan or on a cheaper BlackBerry-specific plan. You might lose web access, but you'll have a good messaging phone with a real smartphone OS.
We were at first skeptical about the external screen, but as it's implemented it's arguably very smart. Technology addicts may love staring at a screen, but the Style's screen works very well for those of us who might need a phone for work but don't necessarily want to be chained to it. You only have to pull it out for a brief moment to see if there's a relevant message, and the software works well in cutting down on the time spent away from other people.
There are definite catches, though, even for BlackBerry die-hards. The battery life may be the biggest liability. We know some BlackBerry fans who spend all their day on their phones, and even the Torch lasts just long enough to be easier to justify as a workhorse; if you can find it at a discount, get that instead. Anyone expecting a revolution in the mobile experience will be in for a bit of a shock, as BB6 is really more of a life preserver keeping RIM afloat rather than raising it above any rivals.
The real danger, we feel, is simply in how much competition it faces. On Sprint, the $100 price puts it in very dangerous territory. For as much or less, you can have Android phones like the surprisingly well-made LG Optimus S or the Samsung Transform if you need a hardware keyboard. Even the Palm Pixi offers many of the same core features, and while it lacks as good a camera or Wi-Fi, it has a touchscreen and an arguably better OS. The situation worsens for the Style if you're either unattached to a US carrier or you live in Canada: at that point, the iPhone 3GS, HTC Desire and many other phones are available that are faster, easier to use and supplied with more apps, again often costing as much or only slightly more.
Consider the BlackBerry Style, then, a qualified success. For some, it will scratch an itch noticeably better than most other devices. But if you're simply looking for the best smartphone for the price, it's not what we'd turn to first.