Editor's update: the Curve 8900 is now available on AT&T but has been discontinued by T-Mobile.
Reviewed February 6, 2009 by Lisa Gade, Editor
Making a good thing better isn't easy these days. We've seen phone manufacturers make incremental improvements that don't jazz reviewers or the buying public. RIM, makers of the BlackBerry line of smartphones, clearly haven't succumbed to "manufacturer's block": the Bold (the best BlackBerry to date), touch screen Storm and now the Curve 8900 prove that RIM still has that special sauce that floats sales even during these hard times.
The Curve 8900 (sometimes referred to by its code name "Javelin" or Curve II) adds nothing groundbreaking but tweaks just the right things to make the BlackBerry Curve once again seem cool and competitive. It was first offered by T-Mobile in the US, and it's now also available on AT&T. And history tells us that the Curve II is likely to make it to Verizon and Sprint some time in the distant future since those carriers have offered their own variant of every BlackBerry released in the past several years.
The Curve 8900 features BlackBerry OS 4.6, a 3.2 megapixel camera with autofocus lens, GPS and WiFi with UMA calling (T-Mobile's @Home WiFi calling service). It's the thinnest BlackBerry by a slim margin and is significantly more compact than the capacious Bold. It has the Bold and Storm's black and chrome modern design that looks great and much less plasticky than the original Curve. Though it is made of plastic, the BlackBerry 8900 doesn't look like cheesy piece, rather quite the opposite. Though it doesn't look as chic as the Bold and lacks the leather-textured back, it costs less too.
BlackBerry Bold and BlackBerry Curve 8900
Here's our 10 minute video review of the BlackBerry Curve 8900 that covers what's in the box, a walk around the device, gaming and more.
The BlackBerry 8900 keeps the first generation Curve 8320's overall shape and size while slimming down 0.10 inches from 0.6" to 0.5" thick. It feels great in the hand, even for those with smaller hands and is easy to operate one-handed (even when texting). They keyboard layout is nearly identical to the Bold's, but the keys are smaller which makes typing a bit harder than on the Bold, though still better than many other QWERTY bar phones on the market. The key surfaces are similar to the last generation Curve's, and lack the "wave" ridged key design found on the Bold. Which key surface is better? That's a matter of personal taste, and I found both equally workable.
35 key backlit keyboard with the signature BlackBerry trackball above.
The phone has RIM's usual front-facing call send and end buttons along with menu and back/esc buttons. The volume controls are on the right as is the camera key/shutter button. There's a convenience key on the left side that's assigned to voice dialing, but you can set it to launch any application. The camera lens is on the back as per usual, and the SIM card slot and microSD card slot are under the battery cover. You need not remove the battery to insert or remove a microSD card.
Performance, BlackBerry OS and Web
The BlackBerry Curve 8900 runs OS 4.6, currently the latest non-touch screen version of RIM's smartphone operating system. The Bold runs 4.6 as well, but we've noted some improvements in the web browser's rendering accuracy and speed. For an EDGE smartphone, the BlackBerry 8900 downloads and renders pages very quickly, thanks to RIM's excellent data compression technology, improvements in OS 4.6 and the 8900's fast 512 MHz Xscale CPU. Obviously it doesn't outpace the Bold with its 3G HSDPA connection and even faster CPU, but it runs circles around the original Curve. Likewise, navigating menus and folders is snappy and the 8900 only occasionally slowed down when several heavyweight applications were running in the background (i.e.: web browser, media player, Docs To Go and email). The phone has ~119 megs of free memory to store applications and T-Mobile bundles a 256 meg microSD card (that won't last you long if you're into music and video).
The BlackBerry can sync PIM with Outlook on the desktop using the included desktop software. PocketMac Mac syncing software isn't in the box, but it's available as a free download on the web. We find PocketMac a little cranky with newer BlackBerry models and resorted to Missing Sync for BlackBerry, which costs $40, but works quite well.
The BlackBerry's claim to fame is push email, and it's still one of the best solutions for those who want email and more on the go. The 8900 works with BES and BIS services (the first is for companies that have BlackBerry servers, the second for those who wish to have their carrier provide the BlackBerry server services). BIS (short for BlackBerry Internet Service) is hosted by T-Mobile in the case of the T-Mobile branded Curve 8900 and it can support up to 10 email addresses including those from your non-BES workplace running MS Exchange or IMAP, POP3 and popular personal email services like Gmail and Yahoo email. You'll get your own @tmo.blackberry.net email address and that's true push email. When you add other IMAP, Exchange or POP3 email addresses, it's not instantaneous delivery since the BlackBerry BIS server polls those email accounts periodically (depending on your email server's setup it could be between every 3 and 10 minutes) and then sends the mail to the Curve. Some web-based email services like Gmail do work in near instant fashion. BES email is instant push, and the Curve can sync PIM data with a BES server.
The included stiff leather slip case functions as a BlackBerry holster.
The BlackBerry Curve, like the Bold and Storm, displays HTML email, and does a decent job of it. Image display is turned off by default to protect your privacy but you can turn it on for a message if desired. The phone creates inbox icons for each email account and has a consolidated Messages icon which is an aggregated inbox for all emails and SMS/MMS. When new mail arrives, you can set the phone to notify you audibly, with a flashing LED or not at all. Since this is a BlackBerry, there are separate settings for in-holster notifications and a small leather slip case sans belt clip is included (it doesn't look like the traditional BB holster with magnets but it indeed is).
The BlackBerry Curve 8900 is a quad band GSM world phone that will work anywhere in the world GSM service is available. It's sold locked to T-Mobile which means you must use their SIM card or get it unlocked (customer service will do this if you've been a customer for 3 months). Call quality is very good and earpiece volume is adequate for all but very noisy locations. The speakerphone is loud and clear with little distortion at high volume. Reception is middle of the road to a bit below-- the smartphone worked fine for us in areas with strong to middling reception but the signal was a few decibels weaker than the Dash and Motorola MOTOZine ZN5.
Nuance's excellent voice command software is included, and it handles voice dialing along with basic commands like "status". It works well when used directly with the handset and with Bluetooth headsets.
The Curve's coolest feature may well be UMA calling, which is calling over WiFi. RIM isn't a stranger to UMA calling, and the BlackBerry Curve 8320 on T-Mobile also had this feature. T-Mobile charges $10/month for their @Home service, and it works with most WiFi access points including public hotspots. The service tunnels calls over a WiFi connection, and you get unlimited domestic calling over UMA-- not bad if you're often in range of a WiFi access point and make a good number of calls. The service also compensates greatly for T-Mobile's residential coverage and building penetration issues that might otherwise make home service or work service in a large office building problematic. When this feature is added to your account, the 8900 will automatically use UMA when connected to a WiFi access point, and display "UMA" on the home screen along with a pink signal strength indicator. If your call originates in UMA mode it counts as a UMA call for billing purposes, even if you go out of access point range and the call transitions to GSM. These handoffs are smooth and reliable-- impressive. If your call originates on GSM and the smartphone later connects to an access point during that call, it's billed as a regular GSM call (in other words, you're billed based on where the call originates). Call quality over UMA is excellent, and is even louder and clearer than a good GSM connection's call.
The smartphone has an integrated GPS and it comes pre-loaded with BlackBerry Maps, a free program that downloads map data over the air and handles mapping, location, POI and on-screen directions. It does not provide spoken turn-by-turn directions, for that you'll need TeleNav, a $9.99/month service that also downloads map data over the air. TeleNav is a solid application with up-to-date maps, traffic information, spoken directions, re-routing and a good POI database. In our tests, the BlackBerry and TeleNav tracked our location correctly and gave logical directions with fairly accurate traffic information. The phone and program occasionally fell behind according to the on-screen map, but spoken directions didn't lag and seemed to know where we actually were.
Multimedia and Camera
The 8900's media player handles video playback, music, ringtones and pictures. It's no different from other recent BlackBerry smartphones in terms of UI and file support, though we've found that with each OS revision, the media player expands video format support (for example older BlackBerry Pearl models were very picky about encoding). RIM includes Roxio (Windows only) desktop software and it will convert and optimize video before transferring it to the phone. Alternatively, if you're using compatible video files, you can use a card reader and drag them to a microSD card. The music player handles most popular formats including unprotected iTunes songs (RIM includes a Windows app that will sync iTunes playlists to the BlackBerry and PocketMac has the same feature). Other formats include MP3, WAV and WMA. Audio output through the included 3.5mm stereo headset is good and likewise very good with A2DP stereo headphones like the Motorola S9-HD.
The video player handles MPEG4 (the same format used for the iPod and iPhone) and the high resolution display impressed us for QVGA playback of iPhone-formatted .MP4 files. The screen's sharpness and vivid colors are likewise wonderful for photo viewing, though we wish the screen were larger for both video and image viewing. The display is a bit more warm than our Bold's which is quite cool, and we preferred the Curve's more natural flesh tones.
The 3.2 megapixel camera represents RIM's second autofocus model (the Storm was the first). Both cameras share the same resolution and similar software, but we found the Storm's colors faded and dull while the Curve 8900's are strong (in fact, blues are sometimes vividly over-saturated). As with most autofocus camera phones, you'll press the camera button half way down to focus (an on-screen box will turn green when focus is achieved) and then press it all the way down to take the photo. Camera phones aren't quick when it comes to autofocus, and the Curve like the Storm is a bit faster than average at approximately 2 seconds. Overall, we really liked the 8900's photos and rank them above the Storm's and HTC Fuze though below the 5 megapixel Samsung Behold.
The Curve 8900 comes with a 1400 mAh Lithium Ion battery, that's beefier than the original Curve's 1100 mAh battery. Since this is an EDGE device, battery life is good when WiFi is turned off, and we managed just over 5 hours of talk time. WiFi and UMA calling take their toll when the phone is in use but less so on standby. The BlackBerry lasted 2 to 3 days in standby with WiFi on, easily outlasting the Nokia 7510 feature phone on T-Mobile which died after a day of standby.
It's hard not to pick this 'Berry; it's one of RIM's best smartphones yet in a compact package. Gone is the burden of choice-- WiFi or GPS, and the camera is excellent, UMA calling works well and the phone feels great in the hand. It's fairly stable for a new model and in general, BlackBerry OS is one of the most stable on the market. Though billed as a consumer model, the Curve 8900 has what it takes to be a great business tool: very good keyboard, the usual RIM push email experience, a decent web browser and good voice services. Fun features like music and video playback are strong, and we like the standard 3.5mm stereo jack and Bluetooth stereo A2DP support.
Pro: Fast, attractive, very good ergonomics. Improved speed and web browsing compared to older BlackBerry OS versions (i.e.; the first gen Curve and Pearl), high resolution display that's sharp and vivid, very good camera, strong video and music playback, good GPS performance. Has 3.5mm headphone jack and A2DP. UMA is a big plus and works well.
Con: Display resolution is very high for the size and text is hard to read-- the display is the same resolution as the Storm's, which measures 1.1" larger! No 3G. Reception is middling.
Price: $149 $129 with 2 year contract on T-Mobile. $199 with 2 year contract for AT&T. $449 without contract.
Display:2.44" 65K color
transmissive color LCD. Resolution:
480 x 360.
Ion rechargeable. Battery is user replaceable.
1400 mA. Claimed talk time: up to 5.5 hours. Claimed standby: up to 15 days.
Performance: XScale 512 MHz processor. 64 MB built-in RAM. Approximately 119 megs free Flash ROM for program installation.
Size:2.4 x 4.3 x 0.5 inches. Weight: 3.9 ounces.
Phone:Quad band GSM world phone 850/900/1800/1900MHz with EDGE and GPRS for data. Sold locked to T-Mobile.
Camera:3.2 megapixel camera with autofocus lens and LED flash. Video resolutions: 240 x 180 and 176 x 144 MMS mode.
Audio and Multimedia:Built
in speaker, mic and 3.5mm standard stereo headphone
jack. Voice Recorder and music player included. Audio Format Support: .3gp, WAV, MIDI, AMR-NB, G711u/A, GSM610, PCM, MP3, AAC/AAC+/eAAC+, WMA9/10 Standard/Pro. Video formats supported: DivX, XviD (MPEG4 Advance Simple Profile), H.263, WMV3.
WiFi 802.11b/g with UMA support and Bluetooth 2.0 + EDR with A2DP stereo, AVRC, data transfer, headset, handsfree, desktop sync, serial port, DUN and SIM access profile.
Software: BlackBerry OS 4.6. BlackBerry push email client. BlackBerry Messaging, SMS and MMS. BlackBerry Maps (free service), TeleNav GPS navigation application (requires subscription), Documents to Go standard edition (view and edit but not create MS Office documents), T-Zones portal, web browser, media player for MP3 pleasure and video playback. PIM apps include address book, calendar, tasks and memo. Also Alarm, clock, voice notes, calculator, Password Keeper. Games: BrickBreaker and Critter Crunch. BlackBerry Desktop software for PC included for syncing and software installation (PocketMac for BlackBerry Mac software can be downloaded for free from RIM's site).
SDHC microSD card slot. 256 meg card included.