Research In Motion's new BlackBerry Curve, also called the 8300, is a response to the surge of new multimedia smartphones that are becoming commonplace as more people listen to music, watch videos, browse the Web, and check email from their mobile devices.
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I took a look at this cellular-wireless handheld to see how it stacks up against the competition.
This device is available in several carrier versions. The model I tested was the BlackBerry 8300 on AT&T U.S.A.
Design & Construction
The Curve uses the newer generation BlackBerry form factor: it's still a relatively thin yet broad device with a large screen, but (as with the Pearl and the Blackberry 8800) the Curve now uses a center-mounted trackball for menu navigation and selection rather than the traditional three-way jog dial common to earlier BlackBerry phones.
Like all BlackBerries it's considerably larger than the average phone. However, with the addition of multimedia capabilities such as a 2-megapixel digital camera and the ability to play QVGA-quality video and music, the Curve is remarkably compact. The Curve's size also makes for a very usable keyboard, though not quite as large as the slide-out keyboards on some smartphones.
On the left side of the 8300 is the headset jack and a mini-USB port which handles both sync and charge duties. The Push To Talk key is just below that.
The right side features volume up and down buttons and a one-touch camera button. As previously mentioned, the side-mounted three-way jog dial has been removed and replaced with the center-mounted trackball as the primary navigational control for the device.
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Build quality is solid and noticeably better than previous generation BlackBerry phones. The buttons for the keyboard have positive resistance. The entire case feels surprisingly durable despite its plastic construction. Rubber side panels also help provide a better grip and sense of durability. I didn't worry as much about dropping the Curve and didn't feel like I had to handle it with "kid gloves" like previous models.
Entering text on the keyboard is quite comfortable and speedy for anyone familiar with BlackBerry keyboards.
The overall design of the 8300 is simple yet stylish, with only two connectors and logically placed buttons. This might look like yet another business device, but it's a business device with class ... and a few toys hidden inside.
The 8300 uses a 312 MHz Intel processor, the same PXA901 "Hermon" processor used in other BlackBerry devices.
Although a 312MHz processor might sound slow by notebook standards, the processor keeps the operating system moving quickly and applications run without much (if any) lag.
Operating System and Bundled Applications
Unless you're already familiar with the menu system on a BlackBerry, you should expect to spend some time trying to figure things out. Every new generation of BlackBerry is simpler and easier to use, but even the Curve's menu system is not all that intuitive for many people.
The Curve makes life a little easier for new users since RIM has replaced the side-mounted scroll wheel with a center-mounted trackball. Anyone who knows how to use a mouse can navigate the menus with relative ease ... they just might get lost while trying to figure out where they want to go. The trackball also makes it easier to use the keyboard and move the cursor without changing the position of your hands.
While navigation is improved with the trackball, the Curve's web browser is still the all-too-frustrating BlackBerry browser that most people fear and revile. For those who haven't used this before, just imagine the most limited and ugly browser on the planet.
When you open even the simplest web site in the browser you get something that vaguely looks like a crossword puzzle with randomly inserted pictures. Some web sites won't even function properly. If you plan to use the Curve's browser on a regular basis, you need to stick to mobile device-oriented websites, which look much better on a BlackBerry.
While the browser is very fast, allowing you to access an entire page in seconds, speed doesn't matter much when the end result is a webpage that doesn't look like what it was designed to look like. This may be a problem since the Curve is being marketed to young, web-savvy consumers as well as business professionals.
Accessing email is a breeze with the Curve ... assuming you aren't trying to access web-based email via the web browser.
The Curve makes full use of its nice 320-by-240-pixel LCD, pushing the full potential of the QVGA screen when viewing videos or photos. The main system screen and most applications have a graphics-heavy appearance that rivals the look of lower resolution notebook screens.
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While previous generations of BlackBerry phones failed to showcase the real quality of their QVGA screens, you will immediately recognize how good the Curve's display looks as soon as you watch a video.
The 2.4-inch screen also provides plenty of space for the applications and web sites with lots of images.
Built-in digital cameras are now common among smartphones, but the two megapixel camera in the Curve is more useful than many others.
For starters, the higher resolution means you're more likely to actually want to print the photos from the Curve. That said, the camera still suffers from the same limitations as most smartphone cameras -- weak flash, grainy images in low light, motion blur, and an almost useless digital zoom.
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Perhaps one day smartphone manufacturers will find a way to pack a powerful battery into a smartphone so it can provide power to a stronger camera flash, image stabilization, and an optical zoom lens. Until then the Curve's camera is about as good as a smartphone camera gets. I just wish the camera also offered a video function for taking short movies.
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One interesting feature related to the camera is a small "self-portrait mirror" located next to the camera lens. This mirror allows you to position your face in the frame so that you capture your entire face when you point the camera at yourself. It's a small feature that makes a huge difference ... especially for people who usually take close-up pictures of their ears when trying to take a self portrait.
Memory and Expansion
The 8300 comes with 64MB of internal flash memory, which is sufficient for most applications and uses. However, anyone storing music files, video, or a large number of digital image files should consider purchasing a microSD card.
This is where I found the single most frustrating problem with the Curve. The location of the microSD card slot is behind the battery. You have to remove the Curve's back case plate and remove the battery to access the expansion slot for the microSD card. This is completely unacceptable as it makes the microSD card slot impractical to use.
Most people who use flash memory cards want to be able to insert and remove the card whenever they want to transfer files from one device to another. If you take 100 photos on vacation with the Curve's built-in digital camera and want to put them on your home PC using a microSD card reader you have to disassemble the Curve in order to remove the card. The card slot should have been mounted on the side or bottom of the Curve so that the card can be inserted or removed without rendering the BlackBerry useless.
Size & Weight
The 8300 is surprisingly light for a smartphone with its range of capabilities.
Like most BlackBerry smartphones the Curve's broad, thin form-factor isn't exactly meant for the traditional way of holding a phone to your ear. You'll want to use a Bluetooth headset or the built-in speaker phone for voice use. Of course, you can also use a wired headset ... if anyone still uses those.
Docking & Communication
The 8300 features a simple mini-USB plug for charging and data connectivity, located on the upper left edge of the case below the headset jack.
Ths smartphone comes with Bluetooth 2.0 for short-range wireless connectivity, which is perfect for connecting to a Bluetooth wireless headset or for sharing the address book or other applications with Bluetooth-enabled devices.
In addition, the Curve supports the Dial-Up Networking profile, so it can be used as a modem for a laptop PC.
Unlike previous generation BlackBerry phones the Curve isn't strictly business phone oriented -- it actually can be used as a digital music player.
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The media player included with this device is robust and easy to use.
The built-in speaker is surprisingly capable given the Curve's size. The included stereo earphones provide clean, distortion-free sound but lack bass. I also noticed the earphones are a bit large ... maybe too large for people with normal or small ears.
The 1000 mAh battery in the 8300 is rated for about 4 hours (240 minutes) of talk time, or 17 days (408 hours) of standby. As strange as those numbers might sound to some, since devices with such a high standby usually have more talk time, testing shows that these figures are pretty accurate. As with any battery, your actual times will vary according to usage.
While these numbers are in line with previous BlackBerry models, four hours of talk time really isn't impressive for regular business use (or for talkative teenagers).
The issue of battery life is even more important now since many owners will likely use the Curve as a digital media player ... draining the battery while they play music and videos.
Overall I was greatly impressed by the Curve. While it lacks some features that young consumers have come to expect in smartphones, the Curve is arguably the best blend of the business-oriented BlackBerry and a multimedia player to date. The rugged construction combined with ease of use make the 8300 an ideal purchase for anyone looking for their first BlackBerry. Likewise, working professionals can upgrade to a smartphone that offers a little more fun.
If you can overlook the poor web browser, lack of video camera, and horrible location of the microSD slot, the Curve might still be one of the best smartphones currently on the market.
Processor: 312 MHz Intel PXA901 Hermon processor
Operating System: BlackBerry 4.2.2 with Java support
Display: 320 x 240 (QVGA) transmissive/reflective LCD
Memory: 64 MB flash
Size & Weight: 4.2 inches long x 2.4 inches wide x 0.6 inches thick; 111g
Expansion: microSD card slot
Camera: 2 MP, flash, zoom, self-portrait mirror
Video formats: MPEG4 Part 2 Simple Profile, H.263, WMV
Audio formats: MP3, MIDI, AMR-NB, AAC/AAC+/eAAC+, WMA, WAV
Docking: mini-USB plug
Communication: Quad-band GSM/EDGE; Bluetooth 2.0
Audio: Earpiece; microphone; speakerphone; 2.5 MM headset jack
Battery: 3.7 volt, 1000mAh Lithium Ion replaceable, rechargeable battery
Input: QWERTY keyboard; multi-directional trackball; send key, menu key, escape/back key, and end/power key