RIM is pitching its BlackBerry Curve 3G 9300 at newcomers to the smartphone sector — at least, that's the implication from the press release announcing the product. Although the Curve 3G handles mobile email well — as you'd expect from BlackBerry — and adds 3G connectivity to the range, does it go far enough?
RIM's BlackBerry Curve 3G 9300 adds 3G connectivity and GPS to the Curve range
The BlackBerry Curve 3G 9300 shares the distinctive look of its predecessor, including an upwardly curving mini-QWERTY keypad. It's this shaping that helps distinguish Curve handsets from their higher-end Bold cousins.
The Curve 3G measures 60mm wide by 109mm deep by 13.9mm thick and weighs 104g. These are the same dimensions as the year-old Curve 8520 with a couple of grams shaved off the weight.
The design of the two handsets is very similar. The Curve 3G's chassis has a slate silver plastic surround, replacing the black of the earlier handset. The four distinctively BlackBerry buttons (Call, End, Back and Menu) above the keyboard are again flush to the chassis, but lack vertical dividers. The Curve 3G also retains the distinctive optical trackpad that has, in recent BlackBerry devices, replaced the mini-trackball that was prone to malfunctioning.
As in the Curve 8520, there are three media playback buttons on the top edge of the chassis, the central one doubling up as a device mute button. This is great for music fans, but it's unfortunate that the 3.5mm headset jack remains on the upper left edge. This is far from ideal, as an attached headset requires another few centimetres of pocket width and the slot can get damaged by snagging. We'd prefer smaller control buttons smaller with the headset jack squeezed onto the top edge alongside them.
The rubberised sides of the Curve 8520 also make a reappearance here. They obviously help you grip the handset better, and the fact that the side buttons feel more like bumps than buttons isn't a problem in practice. There's a volume rocker and a user-configurable 'convenience key' on the right, and a second convenience key on the left.
The back of the chassis is also rubberised, with stippling on the battery cover further assisting with grip. This is an improvement on the shiny plastic of the 8520's backplate.
The BlackBerry Curve 3G's screen measures 2.4in. across the diagonal and has a resolution of 320 by 240 pixels. This is the same as the Curve 8520, but significantly lower than the older Curve 8900 whose 2.4in. screen — like that of the most recent Bold, the 9700 — packs in 360 by 480 pixels.
The mini-QWERTY keyboard is a crucial feature of any BlackBerry handset, but the Curve 3G's doesn't quite match RIM's normally exemplary standards. The action isn't quite as definite as we're used to, although the reassuring click as keys are depressed is as loud as ever and the individual shaping and separation of the keys makes them easy to find at speed. Overall, our typing speed was just a little slower than we'd normally expect to achieve on a BlackBerry. That said, the Curve 3G's keyboard is by no means poor, and anyone coming to a smartphone for the first time should find it perfectly good enough.
RIM recently announced version 6 of its operating system, and there were hopes that the BlackBerry Curve 3G would be the first handset to appear with OS 6 pre-installed. However, the BlackBerry Curve 3G runs OS 5.
It is 'OS 6-ready', though, and it should be possible to upgrade in due course. As to when that will be, RIM says, rather circumspectly, in its Curve 3G press release that "BlackBerry 6 is expected to be available for the BlackBerry Curve 3G, subject to carrier certifications, in the coming months".
As its name suggests, the Curve 3G is the first of the range to support 3G connectivity. That's unlikely to affect mobile email, but those who want to use the device for web surfing should see a performance improvement. The small screen size remains a drawback, though: you almost always have to zoom into a web page to read its contents, and text rendering isn't particularly smooth. Heavy web users might want to consider a higher-resolution screen such as that of the BlackBerry Bold 9700.
The Curve 3G also sports GPS and Wi-Fi — along with 3G, absolute 'must have' features for any smartphone. Wi-Fi support includes 802.11b, g and n.
There is 256MB of Flash memory and a microSD card slot, easily accessible under the backplate, lets you add more storage if required. The camera, never a RIM strong suit, shoots stills at 2 megapixels and lacks a flash. Video recording tops out at 360 by 240 pixels and is of similar mediocre quality.
RIM has been developing its app store to support a community outside the strictly business world for some time now. The Curve 3G comes with a Facebook client preinstalled, and the BlackBerry App World store offers Twitter clients and other more consumer focussed fare. However, the App World not a patch on either Apple's iPhone App Store or Google's Android Market for sheer breadth of software.
The all-important mobile email works as well as ever, and you can do some potentially useful things like pull in Facebook pictures and syncronise your Gmail contacts.
Performance & battery life
Call quality is very good, and the BlackBerry Curve 3G had no trouble maintaining GSM or 3G signals during the test period. We used a T-Mobile SIM and testing occurred in and around London. Your experience may vary if you are in a poor 3G coverage area, however.
Battery life is an area where the BlackBerry Curve 3G impresses. With light use — concentrating on mobile email — you should easily get more than a day between charges, and could stretch well into two days. However, make much use of GPS, Wi-Fi, 3G or music playback and you'll be in the usual smartphone territory of requiring a charge every day.
The BlackBerry Curve 3G does not advance the Curve product line very far. Considering that its predecessor, the Curve 8520, is now a year old, the fact that the only additions are 3G and GPS could either be seen as a testament to the superb design of the earlier product, or a certain complacency on RIM's part.
The screen resolution could have done with a boost, and we'd appreciate more internal memory — or failing that a bundled microSD card. The Curve 3G certainly brings the range up to date, but RIM might have been better advised to wait and release it with OS 6 preinstalled.