We wanted a "Baby Bold" but instead we got the "Bold lite". Not having 3G seriously cripples an otherwise excellent BlackBerry.
There are two ways to look at Research in Motion's latest BlackBerry handset. You could pass it off as "just another BlackBerry", the design of the full-QWERTY keyboard and rounded edges suggest this, but we think that would be unfair. The 8900 is gorgeous, the combination of its stainless steel trim, piano black finish and the amazing display add to make this one of the more attractive phones on the shelf at your local mobile phone dealer.
RIM is excited to show off the 8900 as its slimmest and lightest full-QWERTY handset to date. You might be surprised to read this if you've seen the 8900, it might be BlackBerry's thinnest, but it's no supermodel in the smartphone stakes. Its 13.5mm waistline seems chubby next to a Nokia E71 or an iPhone, and its rounded corners give it a plump appearance — not that we mind its plumpness so much.
The keyboard is in line with BlackBerry's best. The keys are separated to give them just enough definition, so while each is tiny, we've found the 8900 very easy to type on. Like the Bold before it, the 8900 uses a jogball that is directly below the screen to navigate. The default setting for the cursor controlled by the jogball is set to quite a sensitive setting by default, this allows for fast movement across the menus and web pages, but some users may find it moves too quickly to be accurate. This can be easily adjusted in the phone's settings.
As mentioned above, the screen is stunning. Its HVGA (320x480) resolution may not sound so impressive, and its 2.4-inch screen is far from the biggest in the smartphone market, but it has to be seen to be believed. Colours pop off the screen, the blacks are deep, rich black, and all text is crisp and sharp. This, in unison with the side-mounted 3.5mm headphone jack, makes for an excellent media experience.
The 8900 runs on RIM's latest BlackBerry firmware, version 4.2. This means you get the same experience and the snazzy new menu layout we saw last year on the Bold and Pearl Flip 8220. It also means the 8900 should be compatible with the BlackBerry App World when its finally ready for Australians. Provided you're signed up to a BlackBerry service account, you'll have access to the first-rate BlackBerry email system and the mostly good BlackBerry web browser.
In line with its 2008 releases, the 8900 is pitched equally as media-mogul and business workhorse. It has a 3.2-megapixel camera with LED flash on the back of the handset and the built-in Roxio media player is capable of DivX, XviD, WMV and MP4 video files, as well as playing MP3, AAC, AAC+ and WMA audio. Media transfers are taken care of by the BlackBerry Desktop Manager, which will transcode video files during the sync to optimise them for playback on your handset.
Unfortunately, this isn't a big love-fest. Our big bone of contention with the 8900 is the absence of a 3G capable radio, leaving web browsing to GPRS data services (the 8900 is EDGE network compatible but is, at the time of writing, only available on Vodafone which doesn't offer EDGE services). If you've forgotten GPRS (and we wouldn't blame you if you had), the comparison is dial-up internet speeds compared to the ADSL2-like speeds of HSDPA. The 8900 does feature Wi-Fi connectivity, but many will find this cold comfort as Wi-Fi hotspots in Australia are too infrequent to rely on. This really is an Australian problem — readers in the US may not give credence to this gripe — but in Australia, where two of the four carriers rely almost solely on 3G network coverage, it's a big deal.
But how big a deal is it? After all, RIM compress all incoming web traffic through the a magical BlackBerry server somewhere, so in theory you should be receiving much smaller packets of data, and require lower throughput speeds — like you'd get with GPRS. We put this to the test against 3G capable phones, the HTC Dream and Nokia 5800 XpressMusic.
There's lots of variables affecting these figures (differences in networks, etc) but the results speak for themselves. If you plan to use the 8900 to search low-weight sites then you'll experience fast web browsing, as seen with Google.com. For anything more intensive, especially sites with large images like Apple, you can expect to play the waiting game.
Web speeds aside, the 8900 is a little speed demon. Opening and switching active applications is absolutely lag-free. Scrolling down long lists, like contacts or received messages, is also impressively fast. Only certain apps will have you waiting for load times, like the browser for example, but even these are open in no longer than a moment. This further reinforces our disappointment with no 3G; we love everything else about this phone. Though the upside to no 3G is longer battery life. We've seen just short of a full week with push email active and some calling and messaging.
What we wanted was a "Baby Bold", what we got instead was the "Bold lite". If it had 3G network compatibility and HSDPA we'd recommend the 8900 in a heartbeat. As it stands, the Curve 8900 is so close yet so far. It will service a certain segment of users well; those who just need calling and messaging, and those who can wait until they're in range of a Wi-Fi network before browsing the web. But we want options, we want to browse the web wherever, whenever, and the Curve 8900 doesn't offer this. If you're in the market for a BlackBerry, we'd suggest bypassing the Curve and getting the chunkier, but better featured Bold instead.