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BlackBerry Curve 8900 smartphone

December 20th, 2008
RIM gives the BlackBerry Curve its largest and best update ever.

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.

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.

BlackBerry OS 4.6, media and the web

The Curve 8900 and early every 2008 BlackBerry from the Bold onwards is using BlackBerry OS 4.6, which brings several significant changes versus the 4.3 releases for the Curve 8300 line and many older phones. Most will at first notice the new look: it's much "prettier" and uses stylized line-drawing icons as well as ample amounts of transparency. It's largely superficial, though it's tangibly easier to recognize certain app icons and it all goes a long way towards conveying a sense of polish that Symbian and Windows Mobile currently lack. That said, it would be appreciated if RIM finally switched to more visual settings menus instead of the plain text it's at times notorious for using below the surface.

A lot of this cosmetic focus applies to media playback. While it's described as a new media player, most of the changes simply improve the look of playing music or videos rather than genuinely new features. The greatest change we noticed was a full-screen mode for video, which is admittedly helpful to make the most of the extra-sharp display. RIM's latest software is enjoyable and entirely usable for frequent music duties, but it's not the fundamental shift that would be needed to unseat the iPhone as the reigning champion.

Most of the additions really focus on the BlackBerry's most glaring problem, its support for the web. Both the web browser and the mail client now support a much wider swath of modern web standards and thus render many websites or HTML e-mail messages properly where the Curve from several months ago would have fallen apart. While a touchscreen would be nice, the web is now eminently more workable and displays more like a desktop equivalent; RIM wisely chose to use a whole-page view in the browser that lets users zoom in before worrying about clicking active links. This is the closest we've seen a non-touch browser get to the "real" Internet in awhile.

It's not quite flawless; we've noticed that some websites (including Electronista) still have formatting errors that don't show on the iPhone or similar browsers, and features like mobile YouTube support haven't quite panned out. Likely for navigation reasons when plain text is involved, HTML e-mail is also wrapped around to fit and frequently looks ugly.

Other changes in 4.6 are more subtle. Video capture is the most notable and may prove a seller for MMS and video upload sites; besides this, there's more customization of the menu grid, more advanced spelling checks, a substantial alarm clock function, and better Bluetooth support that involves stereo audio and listen-only pairing. They amount to a substantial improvement, even if few beyond the browser really affect the final experience.

call quality and battery life

Voice on the new Curve is good, though not spectacular. Recipients often had nothing but praise for the incoming quality, which was loud and free of background, but incoming voice wasn't always great. Calls would occasionally sound muffled if still legible. Part of this stems from the absence of HSPA-based 3G, however, and so it's half the nature of the phone itself as any potential flaws.

Longevity is a bit shorter than one would initially expect for a phone without 3G. Officially, call time is rated at about 5.5 hours and isn't uncharacteristic of smartphones, but is a bit surprising given the standard-sized screen and the use of habitually more energy-friendly GSM for phone calls. We tended to get slightly short of this figure in practice, and turning on Wi-Fi only shortens that further. Standby mode is still as strong as ever for a BlackBerry and easily lasts for three to four days with light use, putting it above the E71 and other very power-hungry handsets.

the camera app and photo quality

RIM has never placed an especially heavy emphasis on the camera, and it's still true here. Compared to modern Nokia phones and certain Sony Ericsson models, there are precious few settings to change apart from flash and white balance. The most significant addition versus past Curves is the previously mentioned video capture function, but this also is fairly basic.

Thankfully, while the app itself isn't set to impress, the camera is a welcome upgrade. Resolution has been given a clear bump from 2.0 to 3.2 megapixels, but the real difference appears to be quality. In our experience, noise was less intrusive in average lighting conditions while the autofocus managed to accurately produce depth of field for close-up shots. Significantly, the often-feared "smearing" that comes from the plastic lenses on cameraphones seems minimized to where it's almost undetectable. And since there's flash, the phone can also handle night shots, albeit with increased noise and the risk of washing out close-enough subjects with flash so close to the lens.

wrapping up

Whether non-touch yet home-oriented smartphones will last in the long term is hard to say. Although there are many arguments in favor of a hardware keyboard and buttons, touchscreens are almost infinitely customizable and have quickly gained in popularity -- even if RIM's own entry in this field, the Storm, is facing very mixed reviews as of this writing.

The Curve 8900 makes a strong case for the more conventional design thriving, or at least holding its own. It has a hardware interface that, teamed with good software, is comfortable enough to use that it's less likely to frustrate a newcomer but can still satisfy a veteran. With the new display, GPS and Wi-Fi, the Curve also no longer feels like a phone one "settles" for. In fact, for casual use, the Curve is easily recommendable over the Bold for its portability. Unless you're regularly uploading photo or video, or are dependent on desktop-grade websites beyond the reach of Wi-Fi, there's not much practical difference.

The Bold does carry 1GB of built-in memory, but this edge is something of a wash when the cost of adding storage is fairly trivial

What may create the greatest obstacle is, ironically, the very pricing that should set it apart from the Bold. In its home country with Rogers, the Curve costs $180 on a lengthy three-year plan. That's good for a brand new device in its category, but it's also just $20 below Rogers' pricing (as of December) for the Bold; unless the smaller size, UMA or sharper camera output are essential, there's virtually no reason not to opt for the 3G device. Even the contract-free pricing shows a relatively mild $100 difference.

In that time-specific context, we can't quite recommend the Curve 8900 to the very earliest adopters, but we're also confident that Rogers will lower the price enough in the future that the Curve can be a first pick. For the eventual US release, likely due in the early part of 2009, we also anticipate the Curve being a much more economical alternative than the $300 Bold and the becoming the penultimate BlackBerry for T-Mobile. Regardless of whether or not it's the best deal, the revamped Curve is evidence of why RIM still stands head and shoulders above most other smartphone makers, inside the office or out.

- 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.