BlackBerry Curve 8900 review

4 out of 5
dependent on contract

For

New friendlier OS, faster, refreshed consumer friendly design, GPS and Wi-Fi, excellent for email

Against

Keyboard movement, no HSDPA

It is difficult to go anywhere without seeing a BlackBerry Curve, especially if you have the misfortune to commute to work everyday on public transport. The last generation, the 8300 series, was a venerable workhorse, simple in design and interface, but pretty reliable in delivering that connected experience that BlackBerry users crave. But does the 8900 series still deliver that BB fix, or has it shifted too much towards the consumer end?

Out of the box and you can instantly see the similarity to older models, after all, you still get that QWERTY keyboard and the button layout is very similar. It reminds me of when Porsche release a new car: it’s different, but exactly the same as before. It is slightly smaller, but only marginally so – still a nice size for a packet.

The keyboard is a similar size to previously, although all the buttons are a touch larger, except the left and right shift keys that have been halved in size presumably to accommodate the new design. If you’re a heavy shift user this might annoy, although we didn’t find it a problem, preferring to press and hold for upper case.

Across the middle of the face are the same calling, menu and back button, which now reach from edge to edge, so they are all bigger. In the centre the “pearl” has changed to a rubberised black trackball, so that pearly glow is now gone, which will please some. The trackball does seem to be lighter under the finger now, so scrolling through long pages or documents is much faster than before, and navigating around webpages also seems much faster. The trackball is no longer sitting in a cup surrounded by those buttons – everything has been smoothed out, giving you greater scope to scroll around.

The left-hand side now only gives you one button, which is voice control by default. The right-hand side sees more, with the Micro-USB slot, camera (by default), volume and 3.5mm jack. The top of the device still gives you the mute key, but you also now get a key lock hard button, perhaps as RIM realises that the “holster” look is not so popular among Europeans (sweeping generalisation, I admit...). The key lock is a toggle on/off affair, but the old A/call accept method to unlock still works, which is a useful shortcut when you pull it out of your pocket, rather than shifting your grip to depress the button on the top.

These tweaks are somewhat trivial, but they do help move the Curve from business tool towards social networking tool. Of course the real change is in the guts of the phone. The Curve 8900 now sits on a 512MHz processor, so packs less power than the Bold big brother, but noticeably faster than the models it replaces. Whilst the last generation Curve wasn’t too much of a slouch, you now find things are just much faster overall, including the initial startup, should you ever have to turn it off, heaven forbid.

Memory has also taken a boost from 64MB to 256MB, which is perhaps of little significance as the internal microSD card slot will accept cards up to 16GB. Likewise the camera has been overhauled to give you a 3.2-megapixel auto-focus unit, with flash. Nice touches, like being able to send straight to Facebook (having installed the Facebook app) make this a practical device for social networkers or for those office Christmas party horror pics. The camera will also now capture video which was previously lacking .

The OS sees a step up to the new version 4.6, the same as you’ll find in the Bold and Storm devices. The old OS, whilst simple and practical, lacked the design aesthetics found in many rival devices. Fortunately things haven’t actually changed that much. Yes, everything has a new look, with funky icons giving it a sophisticated modern appearance, but it is pretty much the same as before in terms of navigation. One big difference is the front page, where the top line of your icons from the menu becomes the line of shortcuts across the bottom of the page.

This is a neat approach, giving you six shortcuts across the bottom. You can easily move whatever you like from within folders in the menus out to the home page to get them into your shortcuts – if you always play Sudoku on the train, then no problem. Want to ditch BlackBerry Maps in favour of Google Maps? No problem. This customisation level again extends to those left and right-hand side buttons, so you can have your screen icons, as well as hard buttons to applications of your choice, perhaps straight to email or TwitterBerry, if you must.

The BlackBerry has never been short of extra applications to download and install (a few favourites mentioned above), and they take on a new sheen with the new OS; tweaking the way menus are displayed, with a subtle opacity, is a refreshing change. At its core though, things continue to work in the way that BlackBerry users love, with email pushed through with the ability to view your attachments without any problems.

Perhaps the biggest bone of contention however, is on the connectivity front: you still get the same GSM/GPRS/EDGE as before. HSDPA is sadly missing, which seems a strange move, meaning the Curve is a step behind the Bold. We asked a BlackBerry spokesperson about this decision and the response was that BlackBerry were confident that their “data economy” was good enough to work on these platforms. Yes, BlackBerry has always been good at managing the flow of data, giving you headers or segments of text rather than the entire thing unless you actually want it all.

On paper then, the 8900 perhaps doesn’t keep pace with devices like the Nokia E71, Sony Ericsson Xperia X1 or T-Mobile G1, but in practice it does. For email and those social apps you’ll barely notice any difference in day-to-day use. Unless you want to browse the Internet proper or use it as a data modem on your laptop, then you needn’t be concerned. At least coverage on GPRS is fairly solid, whereas 3G has distinct holes around the country, negating any advantage of those other devices.

But pulling it all together is the new screen, which upgraders will instantly appreciate. A 2.44-inch, 480 x 360-pixel resolution display is bright and crisp meaning that photos and video look vibrant and exciting, but basic things like the text of emails is now sharper, again, making the 8900 a pleasure to use.

Media support has been refreshed, with the normal player suite given a bit of a facelift, whilst it supports (amongst others) the normal WAV, MP3, AAC, WMA formats for audio, with WMV, DivX (MPEG4), H.264 on video. Whilst not the most advanced players, you don’t feel you are lacking because you opted for what was once a business phone.

Of course you get the normal Bluetooth support, as well as Wi-Fi, so those who need faster data speeds in hotspots won’t be left wanting. GPS is also bundled into the package, so you no longer have to choose between the two like you did with the previous generation.

Battery life is cited as 5.5 hours of talk time and 19 days of standby. Being a full QWERTY device with modest screen and not having that 3G connectivity means you’ll get more from the battery than from many other devices, of course depending on how much you use those additional features. If it is anything like the last Curve, then it will be a charge every couple of days type of device.

Verdict

But the phone isn’t perfect. It isn’t a mini clone of the Bold, it’s a different device, which might irk those who want or need faster data rates. Whilst the build quality is good all over, a few things niggle: some play in the keyboard, a common problem on previous Curves, and the catch on the back cover that seems a little too lightweight for the job.

The BlackBerry Curve 8900 sounds like an appealing phone overall and it is, especially if you are an existing Curve user. It takes all those things that defined the BlackBerry Curve as a great business tool and gives it a consumer sheen, so you don’t have to feel as though you made a compromise. Start typing the name of a contact, and having the contacts and all the contact options start appearing, still make this a very easy device to use, whatever form of communication you choose.

Business users will appreciate the subtle touches in the software – as found on the Bold and Storm – such as bedside mode where you can disable the LED and even the phone radio and display clock on the face. Having a fullscreen clock whilst charging is also a nice touch. We’ve said it before on Pocket-lint with those other models, and we’ll say it again: it really considers how you want the phone to behave in these conditions.

The Curve 8900 is a comfortable and faithful companion whether for work or play, in calls or emails. It’s just a shame that as a new device, with a focus so firmly on data, it doesn’t come with HSDPA, which may push some towards the Bold.