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T-Mobile is getting a bevy of smartphones this summer, and we're happy to see it (as are T-Mobile customers, we're sure). The carrier has recently launched the T-Mobile Dash 3G and the T-Mobile MyTouch 3G, and the HTC Touch Pro2 is just around the corner. All three are sure to please mobile professionals and gadget heads, but what about those making their first foray into smartphones? Enter the RIM BlackBerry Curve 8520.
As an entry-level smartphone, the Curve 8520 lacks some of the bells and whistles of the RIM BlackBerry Curve 8900, such as GPS and a high-resolution screen, but it delivers on the core features and offers great performance. In addition, the smartphone features a sleek design that includes a new optical trackpad and dedicated media controls. That said, T-Mobile's price of $129.99 (with a two-year contract) isn't the most compelling, especially when you consider that for $20 more you can get the extra features of the Curve 8900. However, Wal-Mart is offering the BlackBerry Curve 8520 for just $48.88 with a two-year new agreement or qualified upgrade, which makes it quite a steal. Hopefully, T-Mobile will reconsider its pricing but for now, if you can get yourself to a Wal-Mart, the Curve 8520 is a great device for first-time smartphone buyers.
The RIM BlackBerry Curve 8520 is probably most notable for its design, since it brings a couple of new tricks to the table. The overall look of the phone, however, is similar to the Curve 8900, and the two models actually share the same measurements at 4.3 inches tall by 2.3 inches wide by 0.5 inch thick. The Curve 8520 is a smidge lighter at 3.7 ounces, and while lightweight, we thought the phone felt slightly plasticky. However, the black model features a soft-touch finish along the outside edges preventing the smartphone from feeling too slick. T-Mobile also offers the smartphone in a frost color.
Since the Curve 8520 is a lower-end model, it doesn't possess the same high-resolution display as the Curve 8900. Instead, the 2.46-inch TFT display shows 65,000 colors at a more lowly 320x240 pixel resolution. While obviously not as sharp--images and text aren't as smooth and show some pixelation--the screen is still clear and bright. You can adjust the screen's brightness and backlight time as well as the theme, font size, and more through the Settings menu.
Below the display, you'll find one of the new features of the BlackBerry Curve 8520: the optical trackpad. Sandwiched between the Talk and End keys, menu shortcut, and back button, the trackpad replaces the trackball navigator that has become a BlackBerry staple since the debut of the original BlackBerry Pearl, and though many fear change, we have to say the transition from the trackball to the optical trackpad was quite easy.
We were pleasantly surprised at how responsive the trackpad was, much more so than the one found on the Samsung Omnia. Aside from the difference in feel (flat versus spherical), it wasn't much of a change, and we didn't have to alter any of our habits. Scrolling through pages and menus was smooth, and you can even adjust its sensitivity via the Settings, Screen/Keyboard menu. You can also press down on the trackpad to select items.
Also new to the BlackBerry Curve 8520: the dedicated media keys on top of the device. You get buttons to advance and playback files and play/pause. The latter also doubles as a mute button while on calls. As intended, they're convenient for controlling the media player and work for both music and video, though you can't use the back/forward buttons to go through photos. The multimedia experience is made even better by the inclusion of a 3.5mm headphone jack on the left side of the device.
Also on the left spine is a Micro-USB port and customizable convenience key, while a volume rocker and another user-programmable button are on the right. The aforementioned controls are slightly different in that they're slight bumps along the surface rather than the traditional buttons you're used to seeing on a BlackBerry. They're interesting to say the least but work just fine. On back, you'll find the camera while the microSD expansion slot is located behind the battery cover, though the latter is just a tad difficult to take off without a release switch.
Last but not least, we have the Curve 8520's full QWERTY keyboard. It's largely similar to the 8900's; the buttons are slightly smaller and packed close together, so users with larger fingers might have some problem. However, we were able to find our groove after a while and could easily type messages. The number keys share space with letters on the left side, though they're not as easy to spot at a glance since the charcoal gray buttons don't stand out against the black keyboard whereas the 8900 highlighted them in white.
T-Mobile packages the RIM BlackBerry Curve 8520 with an AC adapter, USB cable, a 1GB microSD card, a wired stereo headset, a software CD, a recycling envelope, and reference material. For more add-ons, please check our cell phone accessories, ringtones, and help page.
As an entry-level device, the RIM BlackBerry Curve 8520 isn't quite as full featured as the BlackBerry Curve 8900 or the T-Mobile Dash 3G. It lacks 3G support and GPS but still delivers on the core functionalities. We'll start with the most basic and important of them all: the phone capabilities.
The Curve 8520 offers quad-band world roaming, a speakerphone, voice-activated dialing, smart dialing, conference calling, speed dial, and text and multimedia messaging. Bluetooth 2.0 is also onboard so you can pair the handset with a mono and stereo Bluetooth wireless headsets or hands-free kits for hassle-free communication on the go. Other supported Bluetooth profiles include dial-up networking, serial port, audio source, and audio/video remote.
The address book is limited only by the available memory (the SIM card holds an additional 250 contacts) with room in each entry for multiple phone numbers, e-mail addresses, work and home addresses, job title, and more. Of course, you can assign each contact a photo, a group ID, or a custom ringtone for caller ID purposes as well. For those you contact frequently, you might consider adding them to your T-Mobile's MyFaves list, which gives you unlimited calls to five contacts, regardless of carrier. Individual plans for MyFaves start at $39.99 a month and there are family plans as well.
In addition to cellular calls, you can make and receive unlimited calls over a wireless network with the Curve's integrated Wi-Fi and T-Mobile's Unlimited HotSpot Calling plan. The minutes aren't deducted from your cellular plan, but there's a catch in that you have to sign up for a HotSpot Calling plan, which starts at $9.99 per month. The Wi-Fi also comes in handy for cruising the Web, since the smartphone only supports T-Mobile's EDGE network.
Of course, another main source of communication is through e-mail. The Curve 8520 can sync with your company's BlackBerry Enterprise server, with support for Microsoft Exchange, IBM Lotus Domino, or Novell GroupWise, to deliver corporate e-mail in real time. With BlackBerry Internet Service, you can also access up to 10 personal/business POP3 or IMAP4 e-mail accounts. The smartphone also comes preloaded with several instant-messaging clients, including Yahoo, AIM, Windows Live, Google Talk, and ICQ.
Got attachments? No problem. There's an attachment viewer for opening Microsoft Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Corel WordPerfect, PDF, JPEG, GIF, and more. In addition with BlackBerry OS v.184.108.40.2069, the DataViz's Documents to Go Suite is included on the device but it's only the Standard Edition so if you want the ability to create new documents, you will have to upgrade to the Premium Edition. Other personal information management tools include a calendar, a task list, an alarm clock, a voice recorder, and a calculator. BlackBerry's Desktop Software (included on the package CD) can help you sync your data and media files from your PC to your BlackBerry; meanwhile Mac users have been left to get third-party apps like PocketMac for BlackBerry to do the same. However, RIM has announced that it will finally release BlackBerry for Mac desktop software this September, so relief is on the way.
There isn't much else in the way of extras. However, BlackBerry App World is preloaded so you can easily download social networking apps, such as Facebook, Flickr, MySpace, as well as all sorts of other apps, games, and utilities from the catalog. However, keep in mind that you can only save apps to the phone's main memory, which isn't much at 256MB, and not to the microSD card.
As such, you'll probably want to save all your multimedia files to the storage card. The Curve 8520's media player supports MP3, WMA9/WMA9 Pro/WMA10, AAC-LC, AAC+, eAAC+, AMR-NB, and MIDI music files, and MPEG4, WMV2, H.263, and H.264 video clips. The photo viewer also supports BMP, JPEG, PNG, TIFF, and WBMP files. For your own photos, the smartphone offers a 2-megapixel camera with video recording capabilities and 5x digital zoom. Picture quality was pretty good. Images were clear and colors, while not the most vibrant, didn't have a weird orange or grayish tone like some other camera phones.
We tested the quad-band (GSM 850/900/1800/1900; GPRS/EDGE) RIM BlackBerry Curve 8520 in San Francisco using T-Mobile service and call quality was quite good. We didn't notice any type of voice distortion or background noise during calls and had no problem using an airline's voice automated system. Friends also had good things to say about the call quality, and they were even more impressed when we turned on the speakerphone; they didn't notice a difference in sound. Unfortunately, we did notice a change, as speakerphone calls sounded a bit distant and hollow. We paired the smartphone with the Logitech Mobile Traveller Bluetooth headset and the Motorola S9 Bluetooth Active Headphones.
The Curve 8520 is quite a snappy device, and we didn't encounter any problems during our review period. Though the smartphone only supports EDGE speeds, the Web browsing experience wasn't too painful (the Curve's HTML Web browser is another story and could use some work in the navigation department). CNET's full site loaded in 55 seconds while CNN's mobile site loaded in 7 seconds and ESPN Mobile came up in 17 seconds. Getting apps over the network required a little more patience as the 1.5MB Slacker Radio app took 3 minutes and 30 seconds to download.
The RIM BlackBerry Curve 8520 features an 1150mAh lithium-ion battery with a rated talk time 4.5 hours and up to 17 days of standby time. The Curve beat the rated talk time in our battery drain tests, with a total of 8 hours. According to FCC radiation tests, the Curve 8520 has a digital SAR rating of 1.22 watts per kilogram.