Research in Motion is continuing its push towards consumer users — in addition to its traditional corporate customer base — with its latest BlackBerry Curve 8520 an inexpensive, entry-level smartphone. The BlackBerry Curve 8520 lacks 3G connectivity and has an average display but its optical trackpad is well implemented.
The BlackBerry Curve 8520 smartphone has a similar design to the current Curve 8900, with a few notable differences. The first is the new optical trackpad, which has replaced the trackball. The trackpad operates in a similar fashion to the trackball, except there are no moving parts and you simply glide your finger across an almost flat surface. It takes a little getting used to the speed of the on screen movement and scrolling using the trackpad (the speed can be adjusted in the settings menu) but it’s responsive and effortless to use. We think it will be better in the long run too — the trackball was known to deteriorate over time as dust and sweat crept in around its edges and slowed its use.
RIM has replaced the traditional BlackBerry lock button with multimedia keys on the top of the Curve 8520. They work reasonably well but they can be a little hard to press if your hand isn't positioned directly above them. The Curve 8520 doesn’t have the same chrome trim seen on the majority of the current BlackBerry models — instead it's a combination of gloss black plastic and rubber sides. The external volume buttons, camera key and shortcut button have also been redesigned to look as if they're bulging from the rubber edging, but we prefer the sleeker design of the Curve 8900. Despite the Curve 8520's light weight, the build quality is impressive and the rear battery cover doesn't rattle.
The BlackBerry Curve 8520's keyboard is similar in size and shape to the Curve 8900. This may be disappointing if you prefer larger keys (such as those found on the BlackBerry Bold). One quibble with the keyboard — aside from the small size of the keys — is that they are a little noisy when pressed, emitting an annoying clicking sound. The one piece keyboard also wiggles slightly, even if it feels secure while typing.
The most disappointing aspect of the BlackBerry Curve 8520's is its display. While this is an entry-level smartphone, nonetheless the screen has a low resolution and poor viewing angles. In our tests it particularly suffered when we watched video content and used the Web browser.
It's a shame the display isn’t up to the standard we were expecting, because the BlackBerry has a well-designed operating system. Our review unit ran the 4.6.1 version of this OS which includes a number of improvements. The BlackBerry browser has been upgraded to include editing support for Excel, Word and Powerpoint documents. RIM has also added a bedside mode that switches off the light, sound and vibration alerts, dims the screen and turns the Curve into an alarm clock while you sleep. When you access the home screen and the main menu, a small flash of light shines on the selected menu icon as you scroll over it. The main menu also uses a simple grid format with clearly labelled icons.
With all its other features, it's easy to forget that the BlackBerry is primarily an e-mail device. The BlackBerry Curve 8520 supports e-mail through the BlackBerry Internet Service (BIS) or the BlackBerry Enterprise Service (BES). Microsoft Word, Excel and Powerpoint documents can be viewed and edited thanks to the on-board Word To Go and Sheet To Go applications. The BlackBerry browser doesn't match Apple Safari's high standards on the iPhone 3GS but it’s a decent browser. The low resolution display does hinder the Curve 8520’s browser navigation and without a touch screen it’s easy to accidentally click on links.
Perhaps the biggest disappointment with this smartphone is its lack of 3G connectivity (even though we expected it). The BlackBerry Curve 8520 has Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connectivity, but the omission of 3G is almost unforgivable. RIM will point to the fact that e-mail still functions superbly on a 2G network, but in the day and age of smartphones with a big mobile Web presence, it's a big omission. GPS functionality is surprising not present either, especially when it is commonly included in many cheaper mobile phones.
The poor quality, low resolution display does detract from the BlackBerry Curve 8520's multimedia appeal, but a 3.5mm headphone jack, a suite of multimedia apps (quickly accessed by pressing the physical play button on top of the phone) and a microSD card slot go some way to improving the smartphone’s feature set. A basic 2-megapixel camera is built-in but there’s no flash — and the bulging camera key makes it difficult to take steady photos. It doubles as a video recorder, but again, the video quality fails to impress.
Note this review unit of the BlackBerry Curve 8520 smartphone is an international model. The BlackBerry Curve 8520 will launch in Australia in the coming weeks and is expected to be almost identical, but we'll update this review with any necessary changes or additions when we get our hands on an Australian model.
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