The new BlackBerry Curve 8900 is a serious step up from its predecessor – but it is also a doppleganger to the BlackBerry Bold, closely resembling the first 3G smartphone released by Research in Motion (RIM) earlier in 2008.

Where the Bold is larger and supposedly faster, the Curve is smaller and more dependable. The newer Curve phone offers marginal increases over the Bold on almost every specification including display resolution, a better camera, longer battery life and twice the amount of flash memory. All of that for a sticker price that is $20 less than the Bold, both offered up to Canadians from Rogers Wireless.

But the Bold still sports one ace up its sleeve that is absent from the new Curve on the block – 3G compatibility. Yet the 2G version of the Curve doesn’t seem to suffer from its last-generation network status and still performs Web browsing very well.

The smaller Curve is on the left, the bigger Bold is on the right.

Both the Bold and the Curve offer any business user an excellent array of features that has earned BlackBerry its reputation as the enterprise phone of choice. The phones are so similar that it comes down to personal taste for making the selection. It seems strange that Waterloo, Ont.-based RIM would make two phones so similar, and that Rogers would offer both at the same time. But there are key differences.

Users who can’t forgo 3G, or prefer the larger form factor for typing will choose the Bold. The slightly more generous screen real estate might also win over some heavy video viewers.

Finesse users who want a phone that fits the palm of their hand just that much better and offers noticeable performance enhancements will choose the Curve. Here’s a quick glance at the specifications of both the Curve and the Bold, gleaned from the more in-depth version on the BlackBerry Web site. I’ve highlighted the winning specs:

BlackBerry Curve 8900

BlackBerry Bold

  • 2G speeds on GSM and EDGE networks
  • 109 mm x 60 mm x 13.5 mm (“thinnest” QWERTY BlackBerry) 110 grams
  • 480×360 pixel 2.4″ display, over 65,000 colours
  • 5.5 hours of talk time (1400 mAhr battery)
  • 256 mb flash memory
  • microSD card slot expandable memory to 16 GB
  • 3.2 megapixel camera with built-in flash and video capture
  • $179.99 on a three-year contract with Rogers Wireless
  • 3G speeds on GSM and EDGE networks (“fastest“? QWERTY BlackBerry)
  • 114 mm x 66 mm x 15 mm, 136 grams
  • 480×320 pixel 2.6″ display, over 65,000 colours
  • 4.5 hours of talk time (1400 mAhr battery)
  • 128 MB flash memory
  • 1 GB on-board memory, microSD card slot expandable up to 8 gb
  • 2.0 megapixel camera with built-in flash and video capture
  • $199.99 on a three-year contract with Rogers Wireless

Overall, handling the Curve was a great smartphone experience. I use the older model of the Curve as my personal phone as was able to fully appreciate having a more fully-featured, powerful device tucked into the same familiar package.

Keyboard and navigation

BlackBerry users will be well accustomed to this keyboard layout by now. It seems that the old adage “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” applies to RIM’s line of smartphones. The older model curve is known as a messaging work horse thanks to its full QWERTY keyboard on the bottom half of the device, and the new Curve will continue to make those same users happy.

This device is ideal for those who do a lot of thumb-typing on a mobile handheld. The keyboard is spacious enough for the most clumsy of thumbs to tap out an eloquently worded and multi-paragraph piece of prose. They keys feel solid and are flat on the top, easy to press down. There’s just enough space between each key for your touch to easily detect the distinction between keys. Each key press is affirmed with a satisfying click as the command is registered.

The only difference in keyboard layout between the old Curve and the new Curve is the capital-letters shift button is now smaller. It’s not clear to me why this change is made, as empty space now sits where the “aA” buttons used to extend out on either side of the bottom of the keyboard. This didn’t bother me much while I was typing away, but I wonder why RIM didn’t extend them out anyway.

Also here to stay from the last Curve is the trackball in the centre of the device. Nothing new here – move your mouse around and press in the ball to make your selection. But even the trackball seems slightly improved. The mouse zips around a little faster on screen during Web browsing sessions and the ball is flush against the device’s outer wall, instead of hiding away in a shallow depression.

Again, the button and trackball design is identical to that of the Bold’s.

Display

To keep the Curve down to size, the new 8900 sports the same screen size as the older model. But a lot more pixels are packed into that small screen – so many that it is matched only by the BlackBerry Storm in display resolution. Though it is only 40 pixels taller than the Bold’s widescreen resolution.

All those pixels add up to a very clear and crisp image that makes viewing anything on the device a pleasure. Watching video is quite satisfying, as skin tones are well represented, and the overall clarity is surprisingly good. Navigating the device menus and the Web is also easy on the eyes.

The Curve comes with the BlackBerry’s trademark light-sensing display to remain crisp and clear both outdoors and inside.

Camera

The Curve’s camera is a marked improvement over other 2.0 megapixel BlackBerry cameras – such as that found on the old Curve, or the new Bold.

The images produced are noticeably better quality, especially in an indoor setting. The colours are more vivid, images are sharper, and lighting better represented. Still it’s not a camera you would want to rely on for any serious photography, or even capturing those “Kodak moments”, but it does an adequate job in a pinch.

The Curve’s camera shortcut button remains in place along its side. Pressing the clickwheel in activates a picture-taking sequence on the camera. The largest object in the frame is isolated in an on-screen box and brought into focus. This takes about one second or so. Then a flash goes off if needed, and you’ve got an image to review on your handheld and ready to e-mail off or upload to Facebook.

The video camera captures at 15 frames per second. It requires a microSD card to be inserted in order to work. The video taken on this phone is best suited for playback on the phone, or other screens of similarly small size. Forcing the video to playback in a larger window on your PC will only result in a heavily pixelated viewing experience.

Still, the video camera does an admirable job when compared against other cell phone video cameras. It is reliable, catches sound quite well, and plays back a watchable product.

Web Browsing

Depsite the Curve not supporting 3G speeds, I can’t knock it for performance in my surfing experience. In fact, when comparing it to the 3G Bold, some pages still loaded faster on the new Curve.

When loading www.itbusiness.ca on the Bold, I waited a full 26 seconds to fully load the home page. But the Curve managed the same feat in just 18 seconds. Similar results occurred when loading www.itworldcanada.com – on the Bold it took 32 seconds, but on the Curve just half the time in 16 seconds.

I’m not sure if RIM has done some internal re-working of its OS or Browser to speed up the Web browsing process. But the Curve just seems to load Web sites more seamlessly than the Bold. While the Bold seems to stream the kilobytes in very quickly, you’re often left waiting for the page to display and looking at a “loading script” message at the bottom of the screen.

I was disheartened to learn the new iteration of the Curve wasn’t 3G. But it sure behaves like it is. Plus, users can tap into a WiFi network for more reliable Web browsing when there’s one available.

Applications

Back in the day when I had a Palm Tungsten E series, I valued the device for its ability to run DataViz Docs To Go. Anywhere I went I could take notes directly into a Word document, or crunch numbers in a spreadsheet and even show off a slideshow presentation complete with images and graphs.

Now Documents To Go is included with the latest BlackBerry OS upgrade, ready to go on the slew of new devices RIM has been releasing to the market lately (the Storm, the Bold, and now the Curve.) No longer is this great application limited to the shrinking number of Palm users in the marketplace.

Users will be able to load documents in Word, Excel, and Powerpoint format onto their Curve phone and then edit them or share them on the go. Receive attachments via e-mail and open them for viewing and editing just as easily. But you can’t create a new document from your phone unless you upgrade to a premium version – only the standard edition comes ready to use on the Curve.

Still, it’s a powerful application that makes the BlackBerry even more useful as a business tool. The DataViz software definitely belongs at home on the BlackBerry apps menu.

Conclusion

RIM has succeeded by updating its much-loved BlackBerry Curve with a worthy new model. Curve users will find that all their old functionality is still there, but enhanced and easier to view thanks to a beautiful display and some basic icon grouping on the phone’s menu.

The business functionality is the complete package with WiFi, EDGE, and GSM compatibility. One can even make a phone call through a WiFi hotspot that has been properly configured and save valuable plan minutes, or even long distance fees – not too mention the speed and cost-savings at hand for the data usage.

Users still have push e-mail access that is easy to set up, and now more ability to view and edit the attachments sent to them thanks to Documents To Go. Web browsing is fast and seamless.

Almost as an added perk, the media functions on the Curve have really been given a boost. With its high-resolution display and a media player that is the same as found on the Bold, there’s not much lacking here for those looking for a satisfying entertainment phone. But the smaller screen size might leave some media aficianados opting for different devices with larger screens.

Overall the Curve has to be one of the best smartphones available on the market, depite its lack of 3G. It’s got the right feel, and it comes at the right price.

And compared to the Bold? All those incremental steps forward, combined with some basic performance improvements means the Curve is the clear winner in that contest for me.

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