BlackBerry continues to evolve confidently beyond its strictly-business roots. It's just a pity there's no 3G or Wi-Fi
BlackBerry push email and web browser
Qwerty typewriter keyboard
Camera and MP3 player with stereo Bluetooth
No Office editing software supplied
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The BlackBerry Curve is the latest of the iconic messagers from Research in Motion (RIM) to get a snappy name as well as a model number. With BlackBerrys you can tell a lot from a name - if it has one, you can be sure the device has been designed not just to appeal to business users.
A BlackBerry with a name is targeted at a much broader range of users - professionals and message-hungry consumers alike.
It all started last year with the introduction of the BlackBerry Pearl (aka the 8100). And the drive to get more people hooked on push email continues with the launch of the Curve (8300).
The most prominent difference between these models and standard business-focused BlackBerrys is a built-in camera. Corporate customers are on the whole still rather suspicious of mobiles that allow you take snaps.
It's not that having a camera is not a legitimate business tool - as it can prove invaluable for providing visual evidence of project progression, or simply as a memory aid. It's just that often, corporate security and privacy issues outweigh these benefits.
The Curve, therefore, not only sets out to appeal to the average user, who would not even consider a mobile without a camera. But it also will be attractive to the business user for whom cameras aren't a problem.
The main difference between the Curve and the Pearl is that the Curve uses the original wide BlackBerry design with a full Qwerty console providing a button for ever letter of the alphabet. This enables users to compose emails and texts at high speed.
It's not up to touch-typing speeds, but with a pair of thumbs you can get your message across quickly, without having to put up with the frustrations imposed by T9 and the Pearl's SureType predictive text entry.
Despite its broad footprint, the device is actually remarkably light for a handset with such an extensive set of keys. At 111g, it is smaller and lighter than previous BlackBerrys with a Qwerty console. And, as its name suggests, it has a more rounded design than previous BlackBerrys.
In other respects, the Curve is very similar in design to the recent BlackBerry 8800. The Curve has a 2-megapixel camera whilst the 8800 had a built-in GPS antenna to help find your location, and navigate you to where you are going.
Potential buyers may well be able to put up sacrificing the satnav feature - particularly when they discover that the Curve still has BlackBerry's excellent Maps service onboard. It can't work out for itself where you are (unless you link it to a Bluetooth GPS antenna), but if you tell it a town or street, it will provide you with a detailed map. Cleverly (as with the Nokia N95), cartography is not stored on the phone - but downloaded over-the-air on demand as part of the BlackBerry service.
Like the Pearl and the 8800, the main interface with the phone is a centrally-placed mini trackball, which you can use to scroll and select functions. Those who loved the original BlackBerry side-mounted thumbwheel control may be disappointed, but you can't argue with the glowing white ball - it's very easy to use.
It's the core BlackBerry service, of course, which remains the central reason for having this phone. Push Email may seem like a luxury to the average mobile user who is either used to "pulling" their emails when they want to read their messages, or has set up their email software to simply retrieve messages automatically every few minutes. But set the service up, and you soon get used to having your messages arrive practically the moment they are sent.
You can configure the device to get messages from practically any email address that you currently have via the BlackBerry Internet Service. Up to 10 accounts can be stored, and you can configure this all online. But corporate users can also configure their email to feed directly, and securely, into the BlackBerry Enterprise Server system.
It is not just a delivery service, however; part of the attraction of the BlackBerry is that it handles attachments so well. Word files, JPEG images, spreadsheets, PDFs and even PowerPoint presentations are translated by the BlackBerry email system itself so that they are intelligible at the device end. However, HTML-coded emails are not rendered, providing you with a pictureless message made less intelligible by strings of commands and web addresses.
Unlike many of its emailing rivals but like all other BlackBerrys, the Curve is a GSM-only affair. You don't get the advantage of 3G connection speeds, and there isn't an option to hook up to a convenient Wi-Fi access point when one is available. But for most of the time the technology used means that you are unaware that you are using a simple GPRS link.
You can access the internet through the BlackBerry service too. But although the compression technology used speeds up the link, it is not a real match for a wireless broadband connection (as we are getting increasingly used to with 3G phones).
Some web pages also defeat the system, but there are still plenty that you can access without problem. The landscape-shaped QVGA screen is plenty big enough for web use, although the crispness and colour quality is inferior to recently-introduced rivals. The display though does use a system for automatically adjusting backlighting to suit lighting conditions.
The onboard camera is a 2-megapixel affair. There are no autofocus or close-up facilities, and we found that you had to be at least four feet away from your target if you wanted a sharp image. However, we were impressed with the built-in flash. Unlike many others, this really did provide enough to light to visibly improve images in lowlight.
Exposure accuracy is also pretty good, with no real problems with colour or contrast. It's a good workmanlike performance, and there are just enough manual controls, and a 5x digital zoom, to ensure you can influence the final result. Don't expect a camcorder function, however.
Memory is not an issue as the device uses MicroSD cards to expand the 64MB of onboard storage. These allow you to add up to 2GB of memory at a time. RIM is supplying the Curve with a 1GB card in the pack. Unfortunately, unlike with the 8800, the memory card slot is in a slot below the battery, so you can't change cards without turning the device off.
However, a card is essential if you are going to take advantage of the Curve's digital music playing prowess. The speakerphone does a reasonable job of producing sound without too much distortion, and delivers it at a reasonable volume.
Use the provided earphones, and you get the full stereo effect; the acoustic is mellow and slightly muffled, but it is still a reasonable rendition of your music. Fortunately, if your ears need more distinction you can use the device's standard 3.5mm socket to use an alternative set of headphones that have a standard jack or use its stereo Bluetooth compatibility and buy a wireless pair of cans.
The BlackBerry is a smartphone, and can be customised with an ever-increasing range of applications, reference tools and games. However, the out-of-box offering is limited. You have to fork out, therefore, for software that will allow you to author and edit Word documents, and other Office files, for instance.
There is only one game as standard - although additional games can be accessed free through the BlackBerry handheld homepage . Useful facilities that do come with the phone include a voice-independent speech recognition system and the BlackBerry Maps application, along with extensive personal information management tools.
Although this is probably the most together and consumer-friendly BlackBerry we have seen to date, it still has all the distinctive hallmarks of the BlackBerry in its DNA. The Curve, like its RIM stablemates, has been bred for the BlackBerry web and email services, with an easy to use Qwerty keyboard and large screen combination geared up primarily to serve these purposes.
The design of the design is based around those fundamentals, which will make it appeal to many who already know and enjoy the BlackBerry push email experience.
The addition of a camera and the good quality media player are tick marks that may attract both professionals and consumers to this incarnation of the BlackBerry. But increasingly, the lack of high-speed data downloads - with no Wi-Fi and 3G onboard - are elements that serious users may find steers them towards alternatives.
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