BlackBerry Curve 3G

The BlackBerry Curve 3G (or 9300) is the newest handset from RIM, pitched at the entry-level, as confirmed by Mike Lazaridis, CEO: "The majority of people in the worldwide mobile phone market have yet to buy their first smartphone and the BlackBerry Curve 3G is designed to provide an extremely attractive and accessible choice that will help convince many of them to make the leap".

As an entry-level device we know that the BlackBerry Bold, the current flagship handset, is safe: the Curve 3G has a distinctly lower spec. We were expecting a straight replacement for the Curve 8900. Instead we have a device that looks to borrow a little from the 8900, but mostly from the Curve 8520. This leaves the 8900 as something of an enigmatic gem, with that luscious screen sadly not making it to the Curve 3G.

The Curve 3G is distinctly BlackBerry in its design, picking up the hallmarks of recent BlackBerry devices - it has the rubberised finish, with the side shortcut buttons covered. Across the top we have three media keys, as seen on the 8520. A Micro-USB and 3.5mm headphone jack round out the side details.

The back of the device is again finished in tactile rubber, with the backplate having a dimpled finish to aid grip. Compared to the tight lines of the Bold 9700, the back looks a little basic and crude, the backplate not fitting especially tightly within the frame.

Also on the back is the 2-megapixel camera - basic by any standards - which we will look at a little later. There is no flash.

Moving to the front of the device where most of the action will take place, we have all the normal BlackBerry features. A 2.4-inch screen sits above a central waistband of calling and menu keys centred around an optical trackpad, with the customary QWERTY keyboard beneath.

This is a Curve keyboard, so it features isolated keys with a distinct action. Generally we like the keyboard (and have in the past) but this iteration seems to have lost some of the BlackBerry magic. We've always said the keyboard has to be excellent, after all you are only getting a BlackBerry because you are a messaging or email fiend – right?

To fit the design, the Curve 3G keys taper towards the edges, so those keys on the extreme right and left of the keyboard have a lower profile than those at the centre. As such there is much less travel in the delete or return key than there is in the T or V key for example. This makes little difference when using two thumbs on the device, but one-handed, we found that those edge keys were tricky to hit.

If you are holding the handset in your left hand, then it will be the left-hand keys that your thumb struggles to reach (Q, A, alt) if you are holding the device in your right hand, it will be the P, delete and return. This leads to a little awkwardness as you try to hit these keys and it doesn't feel as good as previous generations of devices.

One thing that has been improved however, is the keyboard construction. In the Curve 8900 the entire keyboard moulding moved around within the chassis, but the Curve 3G is nice and tight, so this is an improvement.

The waistband controls have been made part of the screen surround, so there is a single plastic covering which flexes to press these controls. We found them distinctive enough and the removal of those individual keys meant there were less crevices to fill with pocket lint.

The device measures 109 x 60 x 13.9mm and weighs 104g, so it is reasonably light, but not the slimmest device around. The slightly squared corners at the rear make it feel a little chunky in the hand, especially if you are using it one-handed, and it lacks the comfortable feeling that the Bold 9700 has with its curvier profile.

BlackBerry used to differentiate between devices by changing the connectivity options. The world has moved on, and with the Pearl and Curve both blowing the 3G trumpet, hopefully RIM has too. As a result, you'll now find the Curve 3G packing its 3G namesake connectivity, meaning faster data access on the move. You also get both Wi-Fi b/g/n and GPS, something that previous devices didn't always have. Bluetooth 2.1 + EDR also joins the fray.

As an entry-level device, then, it looks well connected, so long as the price is right once it hits the networks. You'll have the same connectivity benefits as the Bold, and it's here that it trumps both the 8900 and 8520.

So whilst not differentiating on connectivity, the screen now takes the hit. With a relatively low resolution of 320 x 240 you'll notice the distinct fuzz that is applied to everything as a result. It can't reproduce the sharp images or characters that the Curve 8900 or Bold 9700 can and it doesn't have the colour clarity that the better BlackBerry screens do, with a yellow tinge meaning the whites aren't as brilliant as they should be. For those looking to upgrade from the 8520, you won't notice much of a difference, but if you've had an 8900, you certainly will. As the 8520 launched a year ago, we are slightly surprised that there has been little movement here.

The Curve 3G comes supporting BlackBerry 6, the next generation of the operating system, but our review sample didn't have it installed. It will be an upgrade for the handset, be we can't put a date on when that will be, or how it will happen. It might make a significant change to the day-to-day experience of using the handset, so you should bear in mind that this review was written with v5 of the OS on the phone. We know that BB6 will usher in more consumer features and we'll look at it as soon as it is available to us.

BlackBerry OS5 isn't the most intuitive out there and can be rather complicated once you dive down into the details. For some this means plenty of customisation options, for others it means plenty to go wrong. You have those odd situations with service books not being registered, occasional puzzlement as to why it isn't using the Wi-Fi connection when it should be and a browser that sometimes changes its identity. Hopefully v6 will step over some of these issues that sometimes leave consumers puzzled.

Avoiding the minutiae, however, the OS is fairly simple to change to your liking, with simple icons across the bottom of the screen offering shortcuts to your most used applications. A universal inbox means you can get all your messages piled into one place, from multiple email addresses, SMS messaging and even integrated with native applications from RIM, so you can get your BBM, eBay messages, Twitter and Facebook messages in this inbox too.

BlackBerry App World is the storefront for your mobile applications, although it is relatively slow-moving compared with the likes of the Android Market or Apple's App Store. There are plenty of messaging offerings and we’re starting to see some mainstream apps coming through from RIM that are worth investigating: Twitter, eBay and Facebook offer a consumer pent, but the App World is stuffed with niche business offerings that don't appeal.

Of course you get BBM, which is one of the areas where BlackBerry has seen a great deal of success, especially with teenagers attracted to the speed with which you can bash out messages along with the affordability that a BlackBerry offers over some of the touchscreen smartphones out there. Core to strong messaging is multitasking, so you can switch between messaging and other activities with a long press of the menu button and the phone OS handles this nicely, but will feel the strain if you never close your apps.

The optical trackpad makes it easy to navigate around the device, although we aren't sold on the raised profile - it feels more like a button (it is clickable, so it’s a fair point). We didn't find much sign of lag in general use, but you will find that sometimes your BlackBerry grinds to a halt and will need resetting, either by the alt+caps+delete shortcut, pulling the battery or using an app to reset it during the night on a regular basis. This tends to keep the device running smoothly without it slowing down and hanging on basic tasks.

The other area where RIM is differentiating between devices is with the camera. Around the back of the Curve 3G you only get a 2-megapixel camera. It is of the fixed focus variety too so close-ups will never be in focus. Apart from the low resolution, it suffers from the usual nasties of edge fringing in high contrast conditions and shadow noise even in decent light. No flash means indoor shots get noisy even in daylight and night-time shooting is pretty much out of the picture.

Video gets the same low rent treatment with the highest resolution offered being 360 x 240, so pretty much only good for sharing amongst mobile devices. It is captured at 15fps, so is jerky. If imaging is important to you, or you want a phone to capture images you'll keep, then perhaps you want to look elsewhere.

We mentioned sharing because sharing is easy - after taking a video or photo you can send them out to the wider world by email or MMS, with other applications joining the sharing list, so you might add Twitter, Flickr and Facebook to this list too.

The media button top centre takes you straight through to your media home so you can easily get to music, photos or video and so on, as well as working as a play/pause button once in your music. This is flanked by track skip buttons to quickly move through your music and the buttons are distinct enough to use in the pocket without getting your phone out. We like the fact you can also change volume whilst the keyboard lock is on, but the media key also doubles as a lock, so when you press pause during playback you also unlock the keyboard - something to watch.

The browser experience is a little hampered by both the screen size and the resolution. Although you can browse your way around webpages, you'll find that you have to do a lot of zooming to be able to read the text and it is pretty slow by current standards to load pages.

Of course the real star of the show is email. BlackBerry has been synonymous with strong email performance for years and you get the advantage of push email accounts which are easy to set-up within a couple of seconds. Despite the Curve 3G's billing as an entry-level handset you get the same email performance here that you would on any other BlackBerry device, which is, in a word, sensational.

You also get much greater integration of your online accounts than BlackBerry used to offer, so for example if you plug in the details of your Gmail account you'll also get the option to sync your contacts, and the Facebook app will make links and add pictures for you. It isn't as overt as setting up something like HTC Sense or Motoblur, but it does mean that out of the box you can be up and running with a phone full of email and contacts in no time at all.

The other area where BlackBerry is strong is in making calls. The Curve 3G has a sensitively curved top edge, so it is a pleasure to use for making long calls - something that not all phones can boast these days. Calls are also clear with plenty of volume on offer. The external speaker too does a reasonable job with more clarity than some offer.

The BlackBerry Curve 3G features a 1150mAh battery which RIM tells us will give you 29 hours of music playback or about 5 hours of talk time. What this really translates into is full-day battery life with relative ease. However, if you are using your Curve 3G to listen to music all day and taking a lot of calls, you'll find the phone drains relatively quickly. In light use, it will be several days between charging.

Internally you get 256MB of memory, but you'll need to insert a microSD card into the slot under the back cover to record video and to store your music.

Verdict

We liked the Curve 8520 when we saw it, but we are now a year ahead and essentially you get GPS and 3G in the same bundle, which compared to rival handsets isn't anything to get excited about: it is simply par for the course. Assuming the prices are as affordable as they were for the 8520 then it makes sense - you get a well connected device that will be smart enough to adapt in the future, if not at the same rate as something like Android phones will.

But you do have to accept the shortcomings: a camera that is behind the curve (excuse the pun), video that is limited in scope and a screen that doesn’t really do justice to the range of content it will display and a keyboard that might present you problems around the edges.

All these things add up to a BlackBerry that hasn't really gone very far in relation to the world around it. The BlackBerry Curve 3G doesn't feel like a substantially new device, at least it doesn't whilst it still uses the current v5 operating system. This may all change with the roll out of v6, but as it stands, it only really offers an incremental change over the Curve 8520.