Thursday, August 6, 2009

BlackBerry Curve 8520 marks consumer, business power play for RIM [hands-on review]

The first thought that springs from your mind when you pick up the RIM BlackBerry Curve 8520 is, “You know, I could get the hang of this.”

That’s what Research in Motion, BlackBerry’s maker, is hoping. The new Curve 8520 has big shoes to fill, since the “Curve” brand wasonce the most popular smartphone in the US (it may have since ceded that title to Apple’s iPhone, thanks to solid 3G S sales).

This new Curve is meant to bring the BlackBerry to the average consumer in a way that the BlackBerry Pearl Flip did not. That phone sacrificed the BlackBerry’s signature, and some would argue best, asset — the perfected QWERTY keyboard that launched a thousand “Crackberry” addicts — for the flip format that Americans just can’t seem to give up.

The Curve 8520 takes a different approach. At first glance, the Curve takes the clean lines of its older siblings the Bold 9000, Curve 8900 and Tour 9630 and strips out the chrome and extra functionality for a solid but surprisingly light (3.73 oz.) and slim (0.54 in. thick) handset that preserves BlackBerry heritage.

Inside, RIM has updated the device. It now features a 512MHz processor and 256MB of RAM.

But the most notable changes are on the outside. First, you’ll notice the flush, rubberized edging that also coats the side buttons. In addition to the usual culprits, RIM has added play, pause, back and forward multimedia buttons on the top. This decision is the most obvious evidence of RIM’s positioning of the Curve 8520 as a BlackBerry designed to appeal to the mass-consumer market.

When I spoke with a RIM executive about the decision, he made no bones about the 8520’s aspirations:

From a traditional QWERTY BlackBerry standpoint, that’s true. It’s not nearly as intuitive as the iPhone, T-Mobile G1 or Palm Pre, but it’s the most approachable QWERTY BlackBerry ever introduced.

Getting started

That said, there were some drawbacks to getting started. Despite a wealth of useful documentation, I had trouble in a few areas. For starters, I had considerable difficulty getting the stubborn back panel off to insert my SIM card and battery.

Using the startup wizard also proved hairy. The process to get started was easy enough (it wasn’t quite the T-Mobile G1, but it was straightforward and methodical), but accidentally exiting the e-mail setup wizard leaves a user lost and without knowledge as how to return to that screen. I eventually found it buried in the menus, but if this is a BlackBerry for the uninitiated, that may be a problem. (The Curve 8520 supports the usual suspects: Gmail, Yahoo!, Windows Live, etc.)

The 802.11b/g Wi-Fi was easy to set up and connect, even to hidden, locked-down networks.

Once I got everything set up, things ran more smoothly. If you’ve used a BlackBerry before, the first thing you’ll notice is the new trackpad, which I prefer to call a “touch chiclet,” that replaces the classic BlackBerry trackball.

Goodbye trackball, hello trackpad

I found the trackpad to be as easy to use as the classic trackball, save for one aspect: the tacky glossy finish occasionally hindered my ability to glide my thumb over the pad. A satin or matte finish, such as that of a laptop trackpad, would be more useful here.

Otherwise, the call, menu, back and hang up/power buttons are as wide and as easy to use as on any other BlackBerry. On the Curve 8520, the buttons are a seamless integration of an “edge-to-edge” display panel that runs from the earpiece at the top to the top of the keypad. The call buttons demarcated by roughly 1cm slits.

The keypad is a classic BlackBerry pebble design, though without the refined touch of its older siblings’ wares. That means the buttons are fairly hard and click-y. In the humid environment of New York City in August, my fingers occasionally stuck to the keys.

Food for thought: I handed the Curve 8520 to a non-BlackBerry user and the first thing she did was touch and poke at the screen. You may find that humorous, but if RIM is planning to address the larger consumer market, it’s facing a group of consumers that are used to, in limited capacity via messaging phones or portable media players, touching the screen.

Multimedia features

The almost 2.5-inch, 320 by 240 pixel TFT screen is crisp and bright, but I found that in a dim setting it was a bit erratic as to when it was on full brightness and when it was partially dimmed. Graphics are crisp, and the experience is very Bold-like, minus the leather and chrome trim, of course.

Out back is a 2-megapixel camera with 5X digital zoom that took fairly crisp pictures but did less than stellar in low light. I found navigating photos to be a chore, since it didn’t automatically shuffle through images if I slid my finger left or right on the touchpad.

On the side is a 3.5mm (standard) headphone jack that offers easy listening to music. The audio player interface was easy to understand and the 8520 pumped out surprisingly loud audio when headphones were not attached.

Nuts n’ bolts: Calls and connections

Switching from UMA to the 2G EDGE network with this quad-band phone, I didn’t have too many problems — just a couple of hiccups on the spotty edge of my local service area, which is a major metropolitan area filled with very large buildings.

Speaking of 2G: RIM says the omission of 3G is a decision based on price, but T-Mobile’s lacking 3G network may also have been a consideration. Either way, it’s worth noting that the Curve 8520 does not support 3G connectivity.

Call quality was stellar.

Despite the generous screen size, the web browser still displays mobile-only sites by default, though I wish I could scroll through the page a little faster (your thumb will get a workout on the trackpad). When chosen, standard-format sites rendered fairly nicely, albeit not quite the same experience as a touchscreen smartphone.

Zoom worked as advertised, and loading speed was reasonable, but by no means instantaneous. On occasion, loading a (mobile format) site was painfully sluggish.

Instant-messaging worked well and easily, a natural talent for a QWERTY phone.

The lithium-cell battery is rated at 4.5 hours of talk and 17 days of standby time on a full charge, a slight improvement from the last Curve. I had no complaints, especially compared to power-hog 3G phones.

RIM’s power play: targeting consumers and business users

In some ways, the Curve 8520 hasn’t ceded too much to the broader consumer market. The multimedia menu is not on the home screen but found in the menu, and using a BlackBerry is still a menu-heavy affair.

In fact, I see the Curve serving a much bigger role in businesses. Whether used as the first smartphone for a small or medium business, or used as a baseline mobile offering from your corporation’s IT department, it’s a BlackBerry that should satisfy most.

Enterprise users shouldn’t fear at all about the “consumer” approach to the Curve 8520: the model connects with the BlackBerry Enterprise Server (including via Wi-Fi), supports up to 10 email accounts, offers Bluetooth 2.0 connectivity and has access to BlackBerry App World.

With RIM’s BlackBerry Desktop Software launching for Mac users in September, it’s also dual-OS-compatible, too.

All credits and information was found by zdnet.


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