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BlackBerry Curve 8330

May 19th, 2008
The Curve 8330 is the best of current BlackBerries rolled into one.

The 8330 essentially paints the complete picture for the BlackBerry -- it's the last of RIM's current lineup to cross over to CDMA networks. It's also the first Curve to offer 3G networking and so promises to make a big splash among users wanting "real" Internet access and messaging in a small and relatively inexpensive smartphone. That it fills an important gap is undoubtable; the real question is whether it can appeal to more than its usual crowd and compete against both other messaging phones and a new wave of high-end feature phones.

design, controls, and expansion

Anyone familiar with the second-generation Curve on GSM networks will be familiar with the 8330; this isn't necessarily a problem, however. Unlike the Moto Q 9c, the Curve is much narrower and easier to hold in the hand. The grip is solid and the phone's namesake curve eliminates the hard-edged feel that some block-like phones often have.

Build quality on these newer Curves has stepped up a level from earlier phones. Early-run phones in RIM's newer style had solid bodies, but loose-fitting buttons that knocked down the perceived quality of what's supposed to be a premium device. On the 8330, those same buttons are very firmly attached and have just enough give to provide proper response without threatening to fall apart towards the end of its lifetime.

That extends to the keyboard, which remains RIM's best to date: it's well put-together, but is less prone to accidental key hits than the 8800 series and gives a more distinct layout than the seemingly one-piece design of its professional sibling. The feat is all the more impressive given the smaller size of the Curve. Nonetheless, typing on the Curve suffers compared to the Q 9c; the extra girth of Motorola's phone is more comfortable for long stretches, and the lack of dedicated keys for some characters (such as periods) slows down writing extended messages.

The signature trackball is also slightly fragile-feeling. It's fast, responsive, and offers much more control over the interface than the directional pad on most smartphones, but has a somewhat hollow and loose feel compared to the rest of the phone. Having seen some demonstration units with a gaping hole where the trackball once was, it's evident that RIM still needs to improve its pointing device if it expects the Curve, the Pearl, and other phones to be as reliable as the company's reputation suggests.

The company continues to make most of the right choices when it comes to ports and connections. The 3.5mm headphone jack makes the Curve one of the precious few messaging smartphones that doesn't force sub-par earphones on those who also want to listen to music. A pair of pack-in earbuds provide decent sound out of the box, though they're no substitutes for audiophile equipment. RIM also uses a very standard mini-USB connection; there's no need to buy a proprietary sync cable if the pack-in model is lost.

However, unlike the current-generation Pearls, RIM continues to insist on hiding the microSD slot inside the phone rather than building a slot outside. This isn't fatal to the phone's appeal, but certainly limits the viability of the phone for heavy-duty media enthusiasts; those who regularly swap out cards to rotate in new music or offload photos will want to opt for the new Pearl or else a phone with a large amount of built-in storage, such as the iPhone or the N95 8GB. As is, the built-in 96MB of memory and (in our case) the lack of a bundled microSD card make it hard to enjoy the Curve as a music phone out of the box.

the BlackBerry OS and media playback

Long-time BlackBerry owners who are expecting a significant revision to the software feature set are bound to be disappointed. The 8330 still runs BlackBerry OS 4.3, and so very little changes with the Curve's switch to CDMA. iPhone users will find the OS slightly arcane. It's not difficult, but making the most of the phone often requires knowledge of shortcuts. Those hoping for 'real' browsing will have to wait for the BlackBerry Bold or later -- full HTML is still missing in both the web browser and e-mail, leaving the web experience far short of Safari or Opera.

All the same, that still results in a strong messaging phone. RIM's interface is at times barebones in many areas -- the options area in particular could stand an update for this decade -- but that spareness makes it possible to check mail or switch apps with a minimum of fuss. Those front-facing elements of the interface that users are most likely to care about, like the home screen, do also have more polish than on many phones and are often customizable; the home screen has four different views, each of which can significantly change your approach to the phone. The "Today" view, for instance, gives you a quick scan of the latest messages; that can be crucial for owners who would rather not dig into the e-mail app to learn whether new mail is spam or an urgent message.

Instant messaging is also fairly strong on the phone, with RIM's usual BlackBerry Messenger as well as GTalk and Yahoo Messenger preloaded. There's no AIM or Windows Live services by default, though a future update will take care of the Microsoft-run service in the future.

And thankfully, the 3G access inherent to most CDMA phone networks in North America leads to many of these Internet-based features being fast -- it's a treat to download web pages (albeit basic ones) at reasonably quick speeds and never have to dread receiving an attachment in your mailbox. Until the Bold arrives, the 8330 is the least expensive full-keyboard phone to offer 3G, which by itself may sway those who have their choice of carrier.

Much of that aforementioned polish translates to media playback; anyone familiar with the updated Curve or Pearl will be at home here. Where Windows Mobile's media player is ancient, the 8330's software is at least pleasant to look at and quickly gets you to a particular album or video. There aren't many frills, with playlists and top-level shuffle support as the most luxurious features. However, it's enough that the phone can be taken seriously as a media device, even if the shortcuts aren't there.

Again, though, actually using the phone for full-time media duty shows mixed blessings. While the hardware advantages and disadvantages are already clear, the current software options for loading the Curve are fairly limited. The Roxio Media Manager software that ships with the phone is relatively clumsy beyond basic transfers. It's perhaps telling that RIM is prepping a Media Sync tool that will simply grab unprotected music and videos from iTunes and automatically load a given BlackBerry's storage, essentially bypassing Roxio's interface altogether. For now, those iTunes users will at least have access to all their unlocked content when they do use Roxio's tools.

Mac users are likewise stuck using either PocketMac for BlackBerry or else its corresponding equivalent in Mark/Space's Missing Sync; these will work well, but still aren't quite full-fledged substitutes for a direct Mac OS X plug-in.

GPS navigation

The party trick of the 8330 is its GPS mapping, and for many this will be the deciding factor between a BlackBerry or a less expensive smartphone without the feature. In practice, it's not quite as seamless as one would expect, though it's typical for GPS. The need to reach a sky-bound satellite means that it's often impossible to get a signal indoors; signal lock can be frustratingly slow at more than a minute between starting the GPS receiver and getting a fix on your location.

For free, RIM supplies its in-house navigator app, BlackBerry Maps. It's useful for basic route-finding and will probably accomplish the job for the majority of the Curve's target audience, but it does have limitations. There doesn't appear to be an assisted GPS mode that uses data to help speed up a position fix, for example. It also seems too easy to break the map view out of following the driver just by adjusting the zoom, which forces the user to either reset the navigation or else scroll by hand to follow positions and directions. There's likewise no luxuries: don't expect traffic warnings or voiced directions. The Curve just doesn't serve as a full replacement for a dedicated GPS receiver, as much as it can help over assist-only GPS.

A word of warning is also necessary for the built-in software: it may be free, but data charges to load in new map information are not. Look into at least a basic data plan if you opt to use BlackBerry Maps regularly.

Most carriers, including Telus, do however have subscription services, and this is definitely something to consider on the 8330 for frequent travelers: it not only absorbs all of the data costs, but also potentially adds features that don't exist in BlackBerry Maps, like the voice readouts added by Telus navigator. It may be the most realistic option for drivers who expect to mount the BlackBerry on a car's dash and use it as a sole navigation device, and at $10 per month it's inexpensive enough; note, though, that these apps rarely support use outside of the carrier's home country.

call quality, reception, and battery life

Whether it's a function of the particular coverage in the area or something inherent to the technology, CDMA phones have never provided exceptional call quality, and the Curve isn't much of an exception. It at times does sound better than CDMA phones we've tested before, but the clarity isn't as strong as with a good portion of the GSM phones we've tested so far, especially the unusually pristine sound of Sony Ericsson phones. It's good enough to be functional and, with the built-in mic, does a reasonably good job of picking up the caller without also catching moderate background noise.

On the upside, the 8330's reception is very strong. Outside of obvious dead zones such as elevators or deep inside buildings, the new Curve almost always has a usable signal. It also holds a signal at further distances; tests had it receiving one or two bars of service with 3G Internet access even at the fringes of the Ottawa service area, where past CDMA phones have dropped off entirely. This last part may be attributable to regional expansion, but it still translates to a genuinely usable phone outside of core areas.

Battery life is unusually strong as well. The calling time is typically short for CDMA devices at just over four hours, but the phone is exceptionally miserly with data use and standby mode. A single charge is often enough for several days of mild-to-moderate e-mail and web browsing, even with occasionally very battery-intensive actions such as using GPS with short drives or snapping photos. If phone use is secondary -- and it often is with smartphones -- it would be hard to find a device more capable than this.

camera use

The 2-megapixel camera in the Curve occupies an odd middle-ground among cellphones. It supports features that many miss on the iPhone, including flash and zoom, but lacks some of the creature comforts you'd hope for. There's no autofocus, and fine-tuning is limited to disabling flash or basic white balance adjustments. Video recording is also fairly basic and is really intended more for short media messages than concerts or any serious videography.

Actual shot quality is likewise strictly average: there's a significant (though not unbearable) amount of visible noise even in daylight shots, and many photos have that slightly blurry, mottled look that comes from using a plastic lens. The camera admittedly isn't the focus of a phone such as the Curve, but for a device which otherwise promises to be so well-rounded, the mediocre imaging is a substantial downside.

wrapping up

The Curve 8330 comes at an unusual point in RIM's history. Effectively, it's the last of a generation: after the 8330 comes the Bold, the Thunder, and a slew of other phones that promise in varying degrees to fix some of the particularly sore points of the BlackBerry hardware and OS, especially web browsing, externally accessible storage, and the clamoring for a touchscreen design to match the iPhone.

As it stands, there are few things that would frighten away smartphone veterans, and a few that would lure them in: if they can surmount the need to disassemble the phone to load in a microSD card, owners can at least have access to a genuinely functional media player app while also getting access to a comfortable (if small) keyboard that arguably trumps those from costlier handsets. With 3G, it becomes realistic to use the phone for uploading and streaming media -- a feature that is still relatively rare among non-Windows Mobile smartphones in North America. GPS can be genuinely helpful on this phone, but it's not quite the coup de grace the marketing would suggest.

Those limits on browsing and media nonetheless make the choice of buying the Curve potentially difficult. It's fairly simple if already tied to a CDMA network. The phone competes best against higher-end smartphones, including RIM's own 8830 and most pricier Windows Mobile devices. Unless Microsoft Office editing is absolutely essential, the smaller BlackBerry accomplishes many of the same feats as well or better than its premium challengers.

It's when one is in the unique position of being a first-time adopter or leaving a contract that the purchase becomes complicated. There's no option for world roaming on the CDMA Curve, which omits the GSM from the dual-mode 8830 or all non-CDMA BlackBerries. You also have the choice of the BlackBerry 8320 and other smartphones with Wi-Fi, which at short ranges wipe out fears over data charges. The looming threat of the Bold and a 3G-capable iPhone also can't be understated; is it worth as much as $250 plus contract on Telus to buy a phone you might want to replace within months?

Still, the 8330 is one of the earliest examples of a genuine "everything" phone from RIM; it doesn't do everything well, but it does many things well enough and comes in at a price that can appeal to a large crowd; perhaps the biggest shame is the higher price that Canadians pay for the same privilege.

- Good keyboard and messaging interface.

- 3G speed helps in many cases..

- Priced below much of its similar competition.

- Good on-phone media playback; full headphone port.

- GPS is useful in most cases.

- Excellent battery life and reception with data.

- No externally reachable microSD slot.

- GPS has same flaws as most units; built-in app lacks extras.

- Same BlackBerry interface as before, for better or worse.

- Call quality and battery life still not much better than for other CDMA phones.