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BlackBerry Curve 9380

December 18th, 2011
RIM makes its smallest BlackBerry ever using all touch.

RIM has usually tried to chase the high end of the smartphone market when it adds a touchscreen: the Storm, the Torch, and the newest Bold phones are all aimed at the same crowd as the iPhone and top Android hardware. With only a limited amount of success, then, it's taken a fresh strategy of bringing a touchscreen to the Curve line for the first time. We'll see in our review of the BlackBerry Curve 9380 if shrinking down and aiming for cost has given RIM a chance at carving out a lead in a young category. RIM has usually tried to chase the high end of the smartphone market when it adds a touchscreen: the Storm, the Torch, and the newest Bold phones are all aimed at the same crowd as the iPhone and top Android hardware. With only a limited amount of success, then, it's taken a fresh strategy of bringing a touchscreen to the Curve line for the first time. We'll see in our review of the BlackBerry Curve 9380 if shrinking down and aiming for cost has given RIM a chance at carving out a lead in a young category.

Design and the display

The Curve 9380 is, without a doubt, the smallest BlackBerry ever. Between a 3.2-inch screen and the lack of a hardware keyboard, it has very little need for space. We found it great for the pocket; while not as thin as some high end phones, it's so small as to be almost a non-issue.

In the hand, it's fairly comfortable and has the same "waterfall" design as the Torch 9850 and 9860, where the front appears to spill over to the sides and the back has its own gentle slope. We do have a slight issue with the back design, though. The glossy black feels solid, but it's not as sure a grip as a textured back and is prone to fingerprints.

Controls work surprisingly well given the small size. The navigation buttons are generally quick to reach, and even the small trackpad works decently. The volume controls and the convenience key fit without being prone to accidental input, too. Our only main issue is that RIM is still using its "stealth" unlock button at the top, which as subtle as it is also requires considerable effort to push.

The 9380 is one of just three BlackBerry phones to date that has NFC (near-field communications). Its current use is very limited, focusing on MasterCard's PayPass in the US and Telefonica in Spain, but it does potentially future-proof the phone for later. If there's a lingering issue with the new Curve, it's expansion. Whether or not you mind the side headphone jack (we're not enthusiasts), there's not much to work with. Just 512MB of permanent storage is onboard, which is only just enough for a small number of photos and apps. There's a microSDHC card slot for much more, but it's not pre-populated, and the back panel is something of a pain to remove. As you're not even allowed to record video without that card, the phone is considerably more restricted than Apple's iPhone 3GS or entry-level Android phones like the HTC Wildfire S.

The display is unspectacular, but well-done for the price. At 360x480, it's the same resolution as the Storm circa 2008. Because it's a slightly smaller 3.2-inch screen and on a much less expensive phone, though, it feels reasonable. RIM's aspect ratio is also wide enough that it doesn't feel quite so cramped as some of its 3.2-inch peers, even for typing. That said, there's still not a huge amount of room, so it's not what we'd use for media sharing or heavy duty web browsing. We'd turn to a 3.5-inch screen or larger if visuals really matter, and in that sense, RIM hasn't escaped the mini smartphone's dilemmas.

Image quality is another treat on the tiny BlackBerry. It's fairly bright and vivid without being excessive. We did see some instances of color banding, but we suspect these were more carryover art assets than the display. As a whole, images looked faithful to their originals, and viewing angles were wide.

BlackBerry 7, performance, and apps

We've already touched on BlackBerry 7's core in our Bold 9900 review, so we won't completely rehash the operating system other than to say that it's a considerably more modern take with a modern browser. Some classic BlackBerry limits still exist, though, including the basic media apps, slow web loading on non-mobile sites, and a tendency to monopolize the OS time during tasks like installing an update, preventing you from doing anything else.

Specific to the Curve 9380, the OS generally feels like a good, though not perfect, fit. While the screen is roughly as large as it is on a phone like the Wildfire S, the interface tends to make somewhat more effective use of the available space than a number of the tiny Android phones we've seen. The browser in particular is better about showing more of the page but letting you get to the address bar when you need it. There's no question that it's not as roomy as the 3.7-inch Torch 9850 or 9860, but it's very usable. Our main recommendation would be to shrink the font size slightly if you want to eke the maximum viewing area from text-heavy apps.

The keyboard might be the biggest surprise of the Curve 9380 -- namely, it's genuinely workable. Many phones this size are too cramped with touchscreen keyboards; it's possible to type fairly briskly here. The landscape keyboard was unusually appealing and spaced just well enough if you find the portrait-ratio keyboard too narrow. We did find ourselves making occasional typos that we suspected we wouldn't on a larger screen, though. RIM ought to introduce a more universal auto-correction system closer to that of Android 4.0 or iOS 5 if it wants to push touchscreen phones more, since the one RIM offers only sometimes kicks in.

Performance-wise, the all-touch Curve has the same 800MHz Snapdragon processor and 512MB of RAM from its non-touch counterpart, the 9360. The OS itself is very responsive, loading times notwithstanding, and can juggle at least a few apps easily. We tried gaming, and 3D apps like Fruits & Ninja (a rather blatant copy of Fruit Ninja from the iPhone) as well as more intensive 2D games like Bomberman vs. Zombies still ran smoothly.

Apps are still something of a sore point on BlackBerry 7. Along with an amount of lost backwards compatibility, the real issue is simply a small and inconsistent selection. RIM has tens of thousands of apps in BlackBerry App World, but they're tucked into too-narrow categories that often only show no more than 25 apps each. Certain apps also tend to go hidden that we've seen earlier, even if they're technically compatible. App World has gotten much easier to use as of the current OS; it just doesn't have the depth and easy discovery of Android Market or the iOS App Store.

Camera quality

The camera app here is the same as on the Torch 9860. It's very basic, but intuitive. The app can be fast if you're willing to turn off the review period for the last shot.

Like the Curve 9360, the 9380 has a five-megapixel camera with a fairly well-balanced flash, but no autofocusing. That works for casual street scenes , but it doesn't work as well for portraits and only seldomly for macros. Resulting output from the camera is average, albeit better than we've seen on some budget smartpones with five-megapixel cameras. Color stays fairly true, if fairly muted. The real sore points are high contrast scenes, where one side or the other tends to lose more detail than it should, and noise, where low light triggers a very visible amount of grain. Given the budget focus, the quality is somewhat forgivable and just not where it would need to be to impress us for the class.

As we mentioned earlier, we wanted to test video on the Curve 9380, but the memory restriction and lack of a presupplied microSD card made it impractical. We've tested video on the Bold 9790, however, and both are capped at 640x480 (VGA). If the higher-end phone is any indication, it produces good audio quality and responds well to movement, but the video is clearly compressed heavily, with a significant amount of block artifacts from squeezing it down. If you're looking for a BlackBerry and care about video quality, go directly to the Bold 9900/9930 or Torch 9850/9860, either of which not only shoots 720p but has higher overall quality to match.

Call quality, 3G, and battery life

RIM in our experience has a reputation for good, but not spectacular, phone call quality. That largely holds here. Calls are fairly clear incoming and outgoing. You don't get the full detail of a phone like the Motorola Droid RAZR, though, and there's no extras like outside noise cancellation to cut out a crowd or a windy day.

Speeds on 3G are strictly average. Unlike the Bold and Torch lines, it's using regular 7.2Mbps HSPA and not 14.4Mbps HSPA+, so you won't get several megabits of real download speed. Without a readily available (and working) speed test app, we couldn't verify the actual speeds, but we'd expect 2-3Mbps. That's enough for music streaming and reasonably quick web browsing, but we wouldn't upload large files over it.

Battery life is good for the size, as you'd anticipate from a device that's both a BlackBerry but also very small. Officially, the call time tops out at a somewhat short 5.8 hours when on 3G. Data use is its strong point. We could easily last a full day of moderate use of messaging, photo snapping, and a light amount of gaming and calls. RIM's data compression does wonders for longevity as well. You can leave the Curve 9380 overnight and expect only a small slice, about five to ten percent, of the remaining charge taken away. If you don't work your BlackBerry too hard, it's feasible to get two days between charges.

Wrapping up

Seen by itself, the BlackBerry Curve 9380 is a pleasantly competent smartphone. It can accomplish most common smartphone tasks without fuss. If you like tiny phones, it may even be enough to convince you to skip the Android equivalents if you're not a fan of their quirks -- certainly if you're the kind who can kill the batteries on other small phones or find Android too complex. We know a few who bought small Android phones only to trade in for something else soon afterwards.

The difficulty is picking the phone when it's price, not size, dictating the decision. At $50 on a Canadian contract (it had yet to reach the US as of this writing), it's as much or more as the considerably larger 8GB Apple iPhone 4 or the Samsung Galaxy W, both of which have considerably larger and sharper touchscreens, faster processors, more storage, and better cameras. In some cases, we've even seen the Torch 9860 offered for free on contract, leaving even the most dedicated touch-only BlackBerry fan hard-pressed to pick the Curve if they live in North America or Europe.

There is one potential cost advantage: contract-free pricing. At $375 on Bell, it's about $200 less than the same iPhone and Torch 9860. Again, though, you'll have to be careful, as it matches the iPhone 3GS price and is still much higher than the no-contract $250 Galaxy W. We imagine the device makes the most sense in the developing world, where someone in India or Malaysia might not have the same alternatives or can get a better up-front discount.

Accordingly, we're giving the Curve 9380 a middling score not because it's a bad phone, but because it's currently sitting in an awkward price position where it's not the best value for money. Consider it if you're looking for the smallest BlackBerry you can get or the cheapest touch model. If you're not inclined to the BlackBerry world, though, consider looking elsewhere.

- Distinctly usable despite the small size.

- BB7 gives modern web browsing.

- Good call quality.

- Long battery life.

- Cheapest touch BlackBerry available.

- Good camera quality in some situations.

- NFC support (if limited).

- Other phones are more powerful for the price.

- Legacy OS holdovers.

- No camera autofocus; poorer in low light.

- Just 512MB of built-in storage.