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BlackBerry Curve 3G 9300

September 4th, 2010
RIM develops a solid basic BlackBerry amid looming competition.

More than ever, BlackBerry sales are skewing towards the Curve; the 8500 has been so popular that it's seen shortages that are rare for a company built on ho-hum phones. The Curve 3G is an attempt to massage that formula to perfection with a refined design and a mix of 3G, GPS and Wi-Fi that GSM BlackBerry owners haven't seen before. We're gauging in our BlackBerry Curve 3G review if that's all that's needed, or if RIM should still be looking over its shoulder at Apple and Google. Design, the keyboard and the display

Curve veterans will get a strong sense of deja vu when they first pick up the new Curve. It's a blend of traits from earlier Curves; the keyboard is much like the one we've seen as far back as the Curve 8900, the body is more rounded like the Curve 8300, and the now standard trackpad made its first appearance in the Curve 8500. About the only two differences on the front are the pseudo-chrome trim and the "stealth" navigation buttons; both lend a slightly upscale look, although we noticed they pick up fingerprints very easily.

In the hand, though, it's a different story, and a welcome one. Taking a cue from the BlackBerry Torch, the Curve 3G has a rubberized, patterned back. It's very easy to grip and still comes across as well-built, although not as clearly refined as an iPhone 4 or a Nexus One. All the side buttons are in their usual familiar places, and there's a trio of media playback buttons at top (seen on the 8500) to quickly pause or change tracks without going into the media player app.

Underneath the back panel are the usual removable battery and microSDHC card slot, though we'll note that the phone only has 256MB of built-in storage and doesn't normally come with a removable card. That masks the real cost of the phone: if you plan to use it for media duties, be prepared to pay extra, even if not much.

Typing is generally pleasant on the new Curve. Among BlackBerry keyboards, we're more fans of the Curve than the Bold/Torch design, since the chiclet keys are both harder to press by accident and have a more authoritative 'click' when they press versus the slightly mushy feel of the higher-end phones' input. Having said this, hardware keyboards are no longer the darling features they once were; many now type faster on a touchscreen, and we found ourselves moving slower on the Curve 3G, even though we were intimately familiar with the BlackBerry keyboard layout.

The primary cost-cutting measure that separates the Curve 3G from the Bold 9700 is its display, and that unfortunately shows to some extent. While the picture is colorful and fairly bright, 320x240 at this size is very visibly pixelated and cuts back on the usable space. The LCD is actually lower-resolution than that on the Pearl 3G and, while physically larger, just doesn't look as good or show as much information as we'd like. RIM really needs to step up and make its much better 480x360 screen ubiquitous for every QWERTY keyboard phone it makes.

BlackBerry OS 5, App World 2.0 and Podcasts

Having covered multiple OS 5 devices in recent months, there's not an extraordinary amount more that can be said about its worth, although a few things have changed in summer 2010. As you would expect, the BlackBerry does well with calls and e-mail, but the aging OS doesn't work so well with the web or media playback, and much of its look, feel and responsiveness is dated. Given that it shipped after the Torch, we suspect the choice was a deliberate one for cost and performance reasons; RIM doesn't have to ship the phone with more than 256MB of RAM, and the target audience will care more for the responsiveness than a newer interface. It's tricky, but from the reports of slowdowns with BlackBerry 6 on the Torch with 512MB of RAM, we'd say it was the wiser course of action, even if it means being an also-ran for web use.

There are some improvements despite the otherwise very conservative software. We noticed that BlackBerry Maps finally has reasonable lock-in times for its GPS positioning. The upgrade is no doubt due to triangulation support that surfaced in the summer; it uses cellular towers to get a rough estimate of the position before it finally pinpoints the position with true GPS. Such a change is definitely a matter of playing catch-up, but it makes all the difference in encouraging use of positioning in not just Maps but in any app that needs geolocation data. It used to be that a BlackBerry could take minutes to decide where it was.

As you'd expect, the 3G does help for download speeds across the board, but this is more a practical improvement than a breakthrough. CDMA BlackBerry Curves have had 3G for years, so the addition is more to give Curves on GSM networks equal footing.

The official app store, BlackBerry App World, has also been given a refresh that makes it more useful, within limits. For a start, it's preloaded: until the Curve 3G and the Torch, App World had always been an optional download. The reasoning has never been definite, but it was likely a combination of corporate security fears of rogue apps along with worries from carriers that their internal stores would be sidestepped. RIM now finally takes payment by credit card in addition to its awkward Paypal method, and app purchases are no longer tied to individual phones; a BlackBerry ID attached to a purchase will let you get your apps again when you trade up. In a period where the iPhone's App Store dominates and even Android Market is large, these are sorely needed equalizers.

Even with these, though, App World still feels like it's a step behind. Apps can be filtered by the top free and paid titles, but discovery is still difficult. If you don't know a title exists, there's a real chance you won't find it. And as much as RIM likes to tout that it encourages "super apps," its previous policies have had a devastating effect on the number and quality of apps you can get. At last count, there were roughly 9,000 apps on the store versus Apple's 250,000-plus, and it was often true that RIM's store would have the same mediocre material that can glut the App Store but without as many (or even any) top-flight apps to make up for it. You'll find apps to scratch necessary itches for tasks like Internet radio, productivity and Twitter, but it's very rare to ever hear of a truly creative app showing up in App World first.

BlackBerry Podcasts does help save the platform for frequent listeners. Although just an optional download for now, it one-ups iTunes on the iPhone by not only offering podcast downloads but maintaining subscriptions. Your phone can, if you like, automatically download new episodes of shows as they appear, including while the app is in the background -- something Apple may be reluctant to do as long as AT&T struggles with 3G service in some areas and caps it to 2GB everywhere. Again, RIM doesn't handle discovery very well, but if you already know a podcast you like, adding it is fairly easy. You do need a microSD card of some capacity, though, as a subscription will rapidly eat up space.

Syncing is easier these days now that BlackBerry Media Sync can port content over. It's not as streamlined as a direct iTunes sync, but it will smooth out the process for when you need to add a new album.

Camera quality

Apart from the screen, the most obvious sign of building to a price is the camera. At two megapixels and without a flash or even autofocus, it's definitely behind most smartphones and even many basic media-capable phones. That does help RIM reach a great price for the Curve 3G, but it also makes the camera strictly a tool rather than a substitute for a dedicated camera; you can't use it to scan barcodes or text, since it can't guarantee sharpness, and it's ruled out entirely for macro shots. There's also classic phone camera flaws, such as the "smeared" look from a plastic lens and tendencies to alternately blow out highlights or underexpose the whole scene.

Software is also just as basic as ever. Not much can be changed aside from the resolution and quality. Even Apple, well-known for preferring everything to be automatic, gives more control over the shot and just recently added HDR photography and will meter off of any given point in a shot just by tapping a finger. The one redeeming trait is speed, since the Curve 3G was fairly quick to move from shot to shot.

Video capture exists, but it's still a fairly mediocre 320x240 where many peers handle 640x480 or 480p widescreen. It's still low-bitrate and disappointing. Simply speaking, don't get the Curve 3G for image taking, whether it's still or moving.

Call quality and battery life

Things turnaround with call performance. On the 3G network, call quality is above average, though partly because the regular to-the-ear speaker is loud. Both ends could hear each other clearly, even with a significant amount of street noise outdoors. The Curve 3G supports UMA (Unlicensed Mobile Access), or the ability to bridge calls between Wi-Fi and cellular, but we weren't in a position to test it. While the T-Mobile USA version will support it and should get better reception indoors as a result, we were given a Rogers version that has to keep using GSM or 3G.

Thankfully, the leap to historically more battery-hungry 3G hasn't chewed away at battery life. You'll still need to plug the phone in for charging at the end of a busy day, but our experience would suggest you could last two days of mild use. Overnight, the phone doesn't consume as much energy as other smartphones we've seen, though that's owing partly to the smaller screen and lower-power processor compared to some of what exists today.

Wrapping up

If you're looking for a cheap entry point into smartphones, especially if you're with a carrier whose BlackBerry plans cost less or are prepaid, the Curve 3G is a viable way to jump in. It's more practical than the Pearl 3G since it can work for heavy-duty messaging, and the on-contract price is often as good -- $80 in the US and $50 in Canada today, and likely to drop lower quickly. Anyone still tied primarily to e-mail or messaging, and who doesn't care about most modern extras, doesn't have a reason to go further.

The overriding concern is simply whether it's the future of the budget smartphone category. We don't think it is. More buyers are not only comfortable with a touchscreen but expect it; it's quite frequent now to buy a phone with at least 8GB of storage and a display that would have been crisp enough for a desktop slightly more than a decade ago. When the world text messaging record is held by a touchscreen phone and has been unofficially broken by iPhone 4 owners, it's clear a changing of the guard is underway.

The iPhone is the most obvious example of this, but depending on your choice of network, you can get handsets with more advanced operating systems than BlackBerry OS 5 and often just more features than what the Curve 3G can manage. On T-Mobile, there's at least the Motorola Charm with Android 2.1 and a better camera. It's even more difficult in Canada, where every carrier is selling an iPhone 3GS for $99 on a contract and premium Android phones like the HTC Desire cost $80. There's little reason to save $30 to $50 up front on the phone when service will cost several hundred dollars a year no matter what you pick, and even off-contract pricing isn't usually that much costlier.

As it exists today, the Curve 3G could be considered a stepping stone. It's a solid pick for its price and if you know what your expectations are, but it's entirely possible that it's the last time you'll buy something in its class.

- Good price on most carriers.

- Textured, solid design.

- Good physical keyboard.

- Above-average call quality.

- Better than usual battery life.

- BlackBerry OS 5 is old; BlackBerry 6 may be too slow.

- App World still not as good as rival shops.

- Poor camera.

- Not necessarily a better value.