T-Mobile teased us at CES 2009 by introducing the RIM BlackBerry Curve 8900 but denying us any details on availability date and pricing. Fortunately, we didn't have to wait too long as the carrier has released the final details and has given us our own review unit.
In short, the BlackBerry Curve 8900 is a solid addition to T-Mobile's smartphone lineup and one of the company's top offerings, in our opinion. It replaces the Curve 8300 series, and brings several notable improvements, including a sleeker design that's bolstered by a more solid construction and an amazingly sharp display, a faster processor, a full HTML Web browser, and a 3.2-megapixel camera. It also has integrated Wi-Fi with UMA support so you can make unlimited calls over a Wi-Fi network. However, our one big disappointment is the lack of 3G support. It's a feature that could really have given the 8900 an edge over its competition.
Despite this omission and some other minor issues, we would absolutely recommend the BlackBerry Curve 8900. It's a solid device that will appeal to both consumers and mobile professionals, offering a nice balance between work and play and all wrapped up in a sweet little package. The BlackBerry Curve 8900 is available now through B2B sales and will be in retail stores nationwide starting February 11 for $199 with a two-year contract.
The RIM BlackBerry Curve 8900 holds the distinction (though who knows for how long) as being the thinnest full QWERTY BlackBerry to date. The smartphone measures 4.2 inches tall by 2.3 inches wide by 0.5 inch thick and weighs 3.8 ounces compared with the BlackBerry Curve 8320, which comes it at 4.2 inches high by 2.4 inches wide by 0.6 inch thick and 3.9 ounces. It feels comfortable to use a both a phone and messaging device and fit into a pants pocket. We do appreciate the Curve 8900's sleek profile but even more than that, we're fans of the phone's more solid construction. Though the phone's body is still made of plastic, RIM used different finishes and paint applications to make the handset more durable and you can notice the difference as soon as you pick it up. Our only complaint would be that the battery cover can sometimes shift a little.
Also, while style is subjective, we have to say we dig the look of the Curve 8900 over the previous Curve 8300 series. It has tapered edges like the BlackBerry Storm and the metallic paint gives the 8900 a fresh, modern. It's a lot less corporate and masculine looking than the BlackBerry Bold, so it should appeal to a wide variety of users.
The Curve 8900 features a 2.4-inch TFT LCD that supports 65,536 colors at a 480x360-pixel resolution. It's a better screen than the BlackBerry Bold, which isn't too shabby itself with a 480x320-pixel resolution, but there is an extra level of sharpness and brightness to the Curve's screen that's quite impressive. The Curve 8900 also runs the latest version of the BlackBerry operating system so you get an updated user interface. There's no doubt the UI is more aesthetically pleasing, but we do have one minor complaint: a lot of icons look the same, so it's a bit hard to distinguish different folders and applications onscreen just at a glance.
Below the display, you have your standard navigation array that includes Talk and End keys, a menu shortcut, a back button, and the trackball navigator. The layout is simple and spacious, so there were no problems using the controls or navigating the phone. The side controls, which are outlined below, also allows for easy one-handed operation.
The BlackBerry Curve 8900's keyboard is similar to the one found on the BlackBerry Bold. Since the phone is smaller, the keys aren't as big or roomy but we still found it easy to compose e-mails and text with minimal errors. The buttons provide a nice tactile feedback and the keyboard is adequately backlit, with the number keys highlighted in red instead of white.
On the left side, there's a single user-programmable shortcut key (launches voice dialer by default), while there's a 3.5mm headphone jack, a volume rocker, a MicroUSB port, and another customizable side button (assigned to the camera out of the box). The camera and flash are located on the back, and behind the battery cover are the SIM card and microSD expansion slots. We would have preferred that the expansion slot be on the outside for easier access, and we also weren't huge fans of the little plastic piece that held the card in place. It felt flimsy, so we worry if it'll hold up over time. Finally, while not immediately visible, there's a mute button and a lock key on top the unit.
T-Mobile ships the Curve 8900 with a travel charger, a USB cable, a 256MB MicroSD card, a wired headset, a protective case, a software CD, and reference material. For more add-ons, please check our cell phone accessories, ringtones, and help page.
The RIM BlackBerry Curve 8900 runs BlackBerry OS 126.96.36.199 so aside from the aforementioned updated user interface, you also get new functionality and improved applications. For example, unlike the Curve 8300 series, you can now edit Word, Excel, and PowerPoint files, thanks to the inclusion of DataViz's Documents to Go Suite. Like the Bold and the Storm, only the Standard Edition is preloaded on the smartphone so if you want the ability to create new documents, you will have to upgrade to the Premium Edition.
The BlackBerry Curve 8900 also ships with a number of personal information management tools, such as a Calendar, a task list, a memo pad, a voice recorder, a calculator, a password keeper, and more. There's quite a catalog of applications available for BlackBerrys, whether you're looking for new games or software for your job. Be aware, however, that if you have third-party applications on an older BlackBerry model, they may not be compatible with the Curve 8900. T-Mobile includes some suggestions and direct download links on its mobile site, or you can check out Download.com for more ideas.
One of the most-needed improvements was in the area of Web browsing, and the Curve 8900 delivers. You now get a full HTML Web browser with support for RSS feeds and streaming media, including YouTube clips. Browsing and navigating sites is made better by the Page and Column view options and onscreen cursor. There are also zoom in/out functions. The experience hardly matches the Web experience on the iPhone, but it's a definite improvement from previous versions of the BlackBerry browser, which was pretty much atrocious. Baby steps, right?
To get connected, you have two options: Wi-Fi or T-Mobile's EDGE network, which is all well and good but what's more newsworthy to us, is what's missing: 3G support. We realize that the addition of a 3G radio affects battery life and size, but still, T-Mobile has finally rolled out its 3G network and could use more 3G smartphones (currently, the T-Mobile G1 is the carrier's only smartphone to offer 3G). Admittedly, we found that surfing the Web on the Curve 8900 over EDGE wasn't that bad but even so, we still would have liked to see the inclusion of 3G.
Fortunately, you do get Wi-Fi as an alternative, and the other upside of the integrated Wi-Fi is UMA support. This means you can make and receive unlimited calls over a wireless network and not have the minutes deducted from your cellular plan. The caveat is that you will need to sign for T-Mobile's Unlimited HotSpot Calling plan, which starts at $9.99 per month on top of an existing T-Mobile plan.
Other voice features of the BlackBerry Curve 8900 include quad-band world roaming, a speakerphone, voice-activated dialing, smart dialing, conference calling, speed dial, and text and multimedia messaging. 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. For caller ID purposes, you can assign each contact a photo, a group ID, or a custom ringtone.
Like most of the carrier's handsets, the Curve 8900 supports T-Mobile's MyFaves service, giving you unlimited calls to five contacts, regardless of carrier. Individual plans for MyFaves start at $39.99 a month. You also get Bluetooth 2.0 with support for mono and stereo Bluetooth wireless headsets, hands-free kits, and dial-up networking.
GPS is built in, using both satellites and cellular triangulation to find your position. You can get maps and text-based, turn-by-turn driving directions with applications such as BlackBerry Maps, which is preloaded on the Curve 8900, and Google Maps for Mobile, but if you want any real-time tracking and voice-guided instructions, you'll have to use a location-based service like TeleNav GPS Navigator.
The BlackBerry Curve 8900's built-in media player can play various music and video formats, including MP3, WMA9/WMA9 Pro/WMA20, AAC, AAC+, eAAC+, AMR-NB, and MIDI music files, and MPEG4, WMV, DivX4, DivX5/6 (partial support), XviD (partial), and H.263 video clips. There's a search function, playlist creation, shuffle and repeat, and you get a full-screen mode for video playback. The included software CD also contains a copy of Roxio Easy Media Creator, so you can create MP3s from CDs and add audio tags as well as the BlackBerry Media Sync application so you can load your iTunes library. The Curve has 256MB onboard Flash memory while the expansion slot can accept up to 16GB cards.
The Curve's camera gets upgraded to a 3.2-megapixel lens (from 2 megapixels) with video recording capabilities, flash, auto focus, 2x zoom, and image stabilization. In camera mode, you get a choice of three picture sizes and three picture qualities. There are white balance settings, and you can add various effects to your photos, such as black and white, and sepia. With the built-in GPS, you can also geotag photos. The camcorder records clips in two formats (normal and MMS) with sound and offers a video light and color effects.
Picture quality was good, as long as we were snapping shots in well-lit areas. Even with the flash or in night mode, we had a hard time getting a photo that didn't look dark or completely blown out by the flash. We also noticed a bit of shutter lag, so be sure not to move to quickly away from the scene after pressing the capture button. Video quality wasn't the best as clips looked pretty grainy, but you can still make out the objects and scenery so it'll be fine if there's a moment that you absolutely must get on film and don't have access to a camcorder.
Despite all these other features, e-mail remains the heart and soul of the BlackBerry. The BlackBerry Curve 8900 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. There's also an attachment viewer for opening Microsoft Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Corel WordPerfect, PDF, JPEG, GIF, and more. With BlackBerry Internet Service, you can also access up to 10 personal/business POP3 or IMAP4 e-mail accounts. Set up is nearly instantaneous; we simply input our Yahoo log in and password, and within a couple of seconds, we received a message that activation was successful. The smartphone also comes preloaded with several instant messaging clients, including Yahoo, AIM, Windows Live, and Google Talk.
We tested the quad-band (850/900/1800/1900; GPRS/EDGE) RIM BlackBerry Curve 8900 in San Francisco using T-Mobile service and call quality was satisfactory. There was some minimal background noise that made audio quality a little less pristine than some other smartphones we've tested, but nothing that prevented us from having a conversation or using an airline's voice automated system. There's an Enhance Audio option where you can boost the treble or bass, but we didn't find a noticeable difference. Our friends reported a couple instances of warbled audio, but otherwise no major complaints. We didn't experience any dropped calls during our review period. The speakerphone was also OK. There was plenty of volume, but there was some hollowness to the audio, making it sound as if our callers were talking in an empty room. We successfully paired the Curve 8900 with the Logitech Mobile Traveller Bluetooth headset and the Motorola S9 Bluetooth Active Headphones.
The BlackBerry Curve 8900 is equipped with a 512MHz processor and is a fairly responsive device. There were some instances of sluggishness; for example, we encountered some lag when we were trying to access our photo gallery and a couple of times when we launched the camera. It wasn't anything that stopped us in our tracks or left us completely frustrated, and overall, we're pleased with the general performance.
The Curve 8900's speaker can't rival the BlackBerry Bold's rich output, but most of you will probably be listening to your music through headphones anyway, so it's a not a huge issue. Using the handset's 3.5mm jack, we plugged in a pair of Bose On-Ear headphones for a MP3-like music-listening experience. Video playback was quite impressive. We checked out a couple of clips, including an MP4 file, and found playback to be smooth and the picture looked great on the Curve's high-resolution screen. We also watched a couple of YouTube clips from the Web browser, which looked very mushy and blurry, but that's more about a video quality issue than a Curve issue.
Our review unit had no problem finding and connecting to our Wi-Fi network. On EDGE speeds, it took the smartphone about a minute to fully load CNET's Web site, while it took about 15 to 20 seconds to load CNN's and ESPN's mobile sites. Though we weren't hooked up with TeleNav GPS Navigator for real-time navigation, the Curve's GPS radio was able to pinpoint our location within a couple of minutes on BlackBerry Maps.
The BlackBerry Curve 8900 features a 1,400mAh lithium ion battery with a rated talk time of 5.5 hours and up to 14.5 days of standby time. In our battery drain tests, we were able to get 8.5 hours of continuous talk time from the Curve 8900 on a single charge. According to FCC radiation tests, the BlackBerry Curve 8900 has a digital SAR rating of 1.01 watts per kilogram.