Review: BlackBerry Curve 8900

As of a couple of days ago, I am the proud owner of a snazzy new BlackBerry Curve 8900, on a rather nicely dicounted O2 tariff (thanks again Thomas!). I have had a good chance to play around with it, tweaking settings and so on, and suffice it to say, the experience is rather different compared to my previous second-or-third-hand phones on pay-as-you-go tariffs!

I’m going to write a fairly in-depth review based on what I think is important about this mobile phone. Apologies if I miss what may seem important to you. Feel free to post a comment though if you’d like to know more!

Input

The first thing that surprised me was the trackball. I had heard this feature mentioned before, but had assumed it was just a poor attempt at re-branding that annoying joystick that you get on lots of phones. But sure enough, your main interaction with the phone is genuinely a little trackball just below the screen. It takes some getting-used-to, and it can be quite awkward to try to “click” the trackball (by pressing it like a mouse button) without rolling it by accident, but with practice it’s actually pretty good, if you have a modicum of dexterity in your thumbs. It gets a little frustrating sometimes when trying to move through text when you are writing it, as it’s easy to jump between lines accidentally when you are trying to scroll left and right.

The alphabetic keys (A-Z) are arranged in a QWERTY layout (if you don’t know what that means, then look at a computer keyboard, find the letter Q, and read the next 5 letters to the right of it!). That means it’s easy to find the letters if you know where to look, and you don’t need to press the keys multiple times to cycle through different characters. The keys are very small, so once again, you need a certain amount of dexterity and precision in your digits, but I’m getting quite adept at two-thumb typing now!

Unfortunately, unlike a computer keyboard, there are very few other keys, so the symbols and numbers are not where you would expect if you are a computer user… but you get used to that. There is a “shift” key you can use to type capitals, and an “Alt” key you can use to type the alternate symbols on the various letter keys (such as punctuation marks and numbers). Calling it “Alt” wasn’t very clever, and neither was the fact that “Alt” and “Shift” are swapped over as compared to a typical PC keyboard… but once again, you get used to that.

The keyboard is illuminated a little, so you can type in the dark, and there seems to be an integrated light-sensor which dims the illumination of it if you are in a brightly lit area, conserving battery life. Another handy feature is the programmable ‘convenience buttons’ – one on each side of the phone – which you can setup to take you to pretty much whatever you like. One by default takes you to camera mode, which is very useful. The other by default takes you to “voice dialing”, which I don’t particularly like (couldn’t get it to work, but it’s my kind of thing anyway), so I changed it to take me to my SMS/MMS messages instead.

Output

The screen is a good size, and is capable of some nicely detailed, fairly high-contrast images and videos, viewable from a reasonable arc. An interesting feature, like the keyboard, is that the screen’s brightness will change depending on the ambient lighting around you… except in this case, it gets brighter if you are in a brightly lit area, since you need to see more contrast under those conditions.

There is a handy little light at the top-right of the phone which does various things, most notably blinking red periodically if it has received a message. It can also be configured to blink green regularly to indicate if it has network coverage. I am sure it does other things too, although I haven’t found them out yet!

The audio quality of phone calls seems to be good, and the loud-speaker (for ringtones and playing music/movies) is reasonable. There are quite a few ringtones pre-loaded, although a lot of them don’t seem very ringtoney to me! (I always prefer something that actually sounds something vaguely reminiscient of a phone!)

Messaging

The device is capable of quite a lot of different types of messaging, including regularly checking an email account for you. It is quite a frustrating process to configure everything for a custom email system, as you have to go through a number of screens to convince it, “yes I really do know the server details for my email account!”. It supports POP3 and IMAP, which is useful, although it doesn’t seem to accept SMTP settings… so presumably sending emails always goes through BlackBerry’s server, which means it may be no good if your email server has a white-list server identity list for antispam purposes (although I guess you could figure out the BlackBerry server details and add them to the whitelist).

Obviously, it supports SMS and MMS messages too, and handles both admirably. I would quibble that the phone doesn’t always distnguish clearly between the different types of message, so it’s easy to accidentally reply to an email thinking it’s an SMS message, or worse, vice-versa! It also doesn’t seem to let you know how long your text message is, so you can’t tell if you’re about to send 1 or 3, in the case of particularly long messages. Additionally, it’s not immediately obvious how to even access your SMS/MMS messages… you have to view the full system menu, and then scroll along to the appropriate menu option. Ideally, I would like the main “Messages” bit (from the main menu on your ‘home screen’) to at least have the option to switch to SMS/MMS messages.

Another odd issue is that messages you have sent and messages you have received appear in the same list — the only different is in the little icon beside it. I think you can filter out the “Sent” messages, but I would much rather have a separate “folder” for that sort of thing.

All those little quirks and things aside, it really is a pleasure to read and write messages of various kinds. I might have to re-think how I do email a little, since the interface simply is not comfortable for dealing with lots of incoming emails… but it’s great for receiving emails on the move. I have a slight concern of the strain the BlackBerry system might be putting on my email server with its constant checks, but hopefully it’s nothing much to worry about.

Web Browsing

I got the Unlimited Data package, so I can surf the web quite happily, and one thing that impressed me immensely was that the trackball doesn’t just scroll through pages… it actually controls a little cursor which you can move around to click on links and other stuff. Very nifty!

The connection is certainly not wonderfully fast most of the time, but it does manage to download and display fully-fledged web-pages. Lots of sites detect if you are using a mobile device, and give you a deliberately cut-down version of webpages, which is very useful in many cases, although you can actually set a configuration option to trick websites into thinking your are using Firefox.

However, full-size webpages are usually far too big to realistically see on the screen all once, so you often start with a ‘zoomed-out’ view, which fits the whole thing on the screen, but makes the text too small to read. You move the cursor to roughly where you want to go, and click to zoom in, and you can then scroll around at a legible font size.

JavaScript is supported to a certain extent by the browser, although there are many things it cannot do (such as the WordPress admin interface), and the JavaScript it does support tends to run rather slowly. It’s better than nothing though if a site really needs some JavaScript, but I tend to disable, as I prefer to surf faster!

Obviously, there are many things the browser can’t do. I don’t think it can run embedded items like Flash (or at least, I haven’t managed to yet), and downloading links (e.g. to MP3 files) doesn’t always work. It’s excellent though, and I will find it very useful for keeping up to date with some forums and news sites, amongst other things.

A very useful thing worth noting here is that the phone can be configured to connect to a wireless network, e.g. in your home or office, so you can fetch web-content through that. It means you have a more reliable and (theoretically) faster connection, although WiFi ironically seems to use up more battery power than a basic GPRS connection.

MultiMedia

The built-in camera is 3.2 megapixels, which is more than my main digital camera! But having said that, 3.2 is way more than necessary on a mobile device — camera shake caused by unsteady hands will lose a lot of that detail! It’s a good camera though, with built-in flash, and it can record videos too.

Playing-back media tends to be a very good experience so far. Images are nice and clear, videos are fairly sharp, and the music-player is basically like an integrated iPod. Too much media runs down the battery more quickly though, as you might imagine.

GPS / SatNav

The GPS and maps/satnav system built-in is… well… not brilliant so far. I can’t always get it to locate satellites to get position data from, which kind of defeats the satnav purpose, and the maps are not wonderfully detailed (many street names are not visible even at maximum zoom). Downloading the map data also tends to be quite slow sometimes. It is apparently capable of issuing turn-by-turn voice commands for navigating you, although I haven’t tried that yet.

In short, it’s no replacement for your TomTom SatNav systems or whatever, but since I don’t have one of them, I’m quite happy to use this when necessary!

PC Software

The pack came with a cable for connecting the phone to my PC, and software to install for interacting with it. The software is a little unresponsive for what it does (evidently coded by programmers who don’t understand that not everybody owns a quad core yet!), and the installation process of the “Roxio Media Manager” was infuriating… took 3 attempts, as it kept seeming to freeze on the “Gathering required information” bit… but got there in the end.

The software is functional anyway, and easy to use for a veteran computer warrior like me! After installation, I was able to transfer pictures, music and videos to/from the phone quite easily. One feature I really like is that the software will also perform necessary conversions/optimisations for you… such as converting videos to MP4.

Other Stuff

There’s loads more stuff I could mention, like the built-in personal organiser features (which seem alright), or the downloadable applications you can get for various purposes. (A note of caution: remember to properly Close applications, instead of just Escaping out of them… seemingly you can use up battery life if you leave them running!). Its address book feature is not always pretty, but integrates nicely with the system as a whole, dynamically searching for matches when you start typing a recipient’s name. It also apparently suports instant messaging, for keeping in synchronous text contact with your mates… but that’s another feature I haven’t tried.

Since I haven’t mentiond it anywhere else, I’ll quickly mention the on-screen user interface here. The main front-end stuff is very pretty and nice… but when you get into pages of menu options and stuff, it all gets incredibly basic… but that’s not necessarilly a bad thing… I am more interested in functional clarity than aesthetics most of the time anyway.

Conclusion

I guess I had better come to a conclusion! All in, it is a very impressive bit of kit, with lots of features. It’s not for the faint-hearted mind you, as I imagine it would need a far steeper learning curve than many users would be willing to invest in… but technophiles and gadget geeks will love it, I’m sure! I have definitely been enjoying it so far. I am a little concerned by the seemingly  quite short battery life, although I have been using it quite a bit, so perhaps that’s not as big a problem as it seems to be.

It is certainly a big step-up from the basic pay-as-you-go phones I have had in the past, and I am pleased with my investment. 🙂

As I said above, there is loads more I could say. If you have any questions or want to know more about anything in particular, then please leave a comment!

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