The Curve brand has been hugely successful for RIM, especially the 8520 mega-hit; these were the first BlackBerries that appealed to the masses on a budget, allowing the everyman a taste of BBM and the famed BlackBerry keyboard. Alongside the Curve 9360, this is RIM’s take on a modern budget smartphone. As you’ve probably noticed, the 9380 doesn’t have a keyboard, perhaps the biggest BlackBerry selling point. That doesn’t spell doom for RIM though, as full touch phones are obviously the way the market is heading. RIM are no strangers to full touch phones, and the ones preceding, such as the Storm, haven’t been popular to say the least.
But now with the arrival of BlackBerry OS 7 and its user friendly tweaks on this budget touchscreen phone with the Curve branding behind it, could the Curve 9380 be the first touchscreen-only hit for RIM? Check out the full review for the verdict!
What’s in the box?
- BlackBerry Curve 9380
- 1230mAh battery
- USB to micro USB cable
- Wall Charger (with international plug adapters)
- Headphone set
- Manuals, documentation
BlackBerry Curve 9380 Specification:
- Size – 109 x 60 x 11.2 mm
- Weight – 98g
- Display – TFT capacitive touchscreen, 360 x 480 pixels, 3.2 inches (~188 ppi pixel density)
- Optical trackpad
- Touch-sensitive controls
- Proximity sensor for auto-turn off
- 3.5mm headset jack
- Memory – 512 MB storage, 512 MB RAM
- microSD, up to 32GB
- HSDPA, HSUPA
- Wi-Fi 802.11 b/g/n, UMA (carrier-dependent)
- Bluetooth v2.1 with A2DP, EDR
- Camera – 5 MP, 2592?1944 pixels, autofocus, LED flash
- Video recording – VGA
- OS – BlackBerry OS 7.0
- 806 MHz processor
- SMS(threaded view), MMS, Email, Push Email, IM
- GPS with A-GPS support
- SNS applications
- NFC support (carrier-dependent)
- MP3/eAAC+/WMA/WAV/FLAC- player
- MP4/H.263/H.264/WMV player
- Document viewer
- Voice memo/dial
- Predictive text input
10 Second Review:
- Product: BlackBerry Curve 9380
- Price: £229 from 02 PAYG, £260 sim-free from Amazon, around £18pm on contract (prices correct at time of writing)
- Summary: Slim and lightweight budget BlackBerry with the slick OS 7
- Best of: Super light, fast OS, battery life
- Worst of: Touchscreen sensitivity,built-in fingerprint magnet, clumsy keyboard
- Buy from: 02, Orange, Amazon
- Also consider: Samsung Galaxy Ace, HTC Wildfire S, BlackBerry 9360, Orange San Francisco II, Sony Ericsson XPERIA ray, XPERIA mini
The top doesn’t have the traditional BlackBerry buttons. Instead, it’s been streamlined to only the lock button in the middle, with the 3.5mm headphone jack next to it.
The left hand side has the microUSB port in the middle, for charging and syncing with the computer. Below that is a virtually invisible groove to stick your fingernail in to remove the back cover. Using this to pull off the back cover doesn’t feel great, but the plastic back is sturdy enough.
The bottom is just smooth shiny plastic, while the right side are where most of the buttons are. There’s your standard volume rocker near the top. There is also a small button inbetween, which is essentially the mute button on previous BlackBerries. During calls it will mute the mic, and during music playback it will pause. Below that is a traditional BlackBerry convenience key; these can be assigned to open any program, but it’s the camera key by default. While it’s sort of disappointing to only find one, that’s the way BlackBerry are going these days, and frankly, it’s still one more than virtually any other brand of smartphone.
On the rear of the device, we have the familiar Curve design and branding, with the camera on the left, and a flash on the right. As far as I know, previous Curves didn’t have a flash, so it’s nice to see one here. Apart from that, there’s not much on the back – just a BlackBerry logo, set in a very shiny fingerprint and scratch prone back plastic cover.
The front is where you’ll find the display, a 3.2″ capacitive display. Looks like RIM have thankfully given up on SurePress. Above it are the earpiece, notification LED, proximity sensor, and BlackBerry logo. Below is the standard BlackBerry button array. An optical trackpad in the middle, with send/end keys and menu and back buttons either side.
- Bright screen
- Responsive UI
- Very customisable alert profiles
- NFC capable
- Small, thin and very light
- Touchscreen sensitivity issues
- Small screen and low resolution
- Tiny, inaccurate keyboard
- Buttons difficult to press
- Poor camera performance
BlackBerry became a household name thanks to their super efficient messaging skills and their stellar keyboards. However, the market evolves at a blistering pace, and it seems that button-less is the way forward. To keep up, RIM have recognised that full touchscreen phones are now the most popular, so, quite reluctantly I suspect, there are a few BlackBerry handsets that have ditched the keyboard. The 9380 is the first from BlackBerry that targets the budget end of the smartphone spectrum, currently floating around for £200 or so. Has RIM been able to build a smartphone that is good enough without the qwerty keyboard, that is also competitive in this fiercely competitive section of the mobile market? Read on to find out.
Build Quality & Design
The first thing that struck me when I first picked up the phone was how small and light it was. At only 98g, it feels like the battery isn’t even in the phone. While some may argue that more weight adds to the quality ‘feel’ of the phone, I’d say RIM have got the weight about right – not ridiculously light so that it feels like a toy, but definitely light enough for it to more that bearable in the hand and pocket. The shape of the phone also helps it sit in the hand nicely – the curves make it comfortable and ergonomic to hold, which is also helped by the fact that in an age of increasingly large phones, the 9380 is pretty tiny. All of the internals seem tightly packed too, as the build quality is pretty good and felt sturdy. Only the side chromed-plastic gives way a little – the back cover has no give at all. Speaking of that back cover, it’s made of the same stuff and designed in the same way as the Curve 8520. It’s glossy black plastic, which proudly shows off all of the fingerprints it’s collected. Judging from the 8520 and my experience with the device so far, it is also quite prone to scratches. The front is also plastic as far as I can tell, so think twice before dropping the little 9380 in your keys pocket.
The display on the 9380 is somewhat of a disappointment, although it is not exactly surprising. The Curve series have never had crisp high resolution screens – that luxury is reserved for the Bold line (actually, maybe the 9360 is different?). Anyway, there are two sides to the display on the 9380. On the one hand, the screen is very bright, reads well in sunlight, and it has excellent viewing angles – from my unscientific testing (i.e. looking and comparing screens) it is just as good as a Super LCD on many high end HTC devices, and I’m not even sure whether this is an IPS display. Although it probably isn’t, I can’t tell. Seeing as this is a media centric device, it’s good that viewing angles are nice and wide. On the other hand however, the 3.2″ display has a resolution of only 360×480. That is the same as the 2.4″ screens on the Bolds, and the Curve 9360. In terms of pixels, the 9380 isn’t giving any benefits in comparison. This results in a pixel density of 188ppi, meaning the display isn’t all that clear, especially when web browsing. Another problem, which is probably software related, is that occasionally, touches near the edge of the screen go unregistered which is annoying when typing. Scrolling is also an issue – the phone doesn’t always correctly distinguish between a tap selection and scrolling.
Despite some issues with the display, I don’t think it is anything more than a few minor annoyances. While it is small, it helps keep the overall size and cost down, while build quality hasn’t suffered too much to meet the budget price level. So what about OS 7 and its enhancements? Do the benefits work well on a small full touch device?
The 9380 runs OS 7 like all the other new BlackBerries – the Bold 9900, Torch 9810, and Curve 9360. Running on an 800MHz processor and 512MB RAM, it doesn’t quite have the same consistent fluidity of the Bold and Torch with their 1.2GHz processors, but it comes in a close second. Despite that, OS 7 runs really well on what seems like underpowered hardware in 2012. Whatever technology is behind the “Liquid Graphics”, it certainly works – I only came across a handful of hiccups, and never saw the dreaded spinning hourglass (except for one situation, which I will come back to).
After some quick setup menus, the homescreen looks like every other OS 7 (and 6.1) device. There is a bar with the time and other status info at the top, a notification bar just below that, an expanse of wallpaper, then your docked icons below. What is nice is being able to choose how many rows of icons to have in there, but a quick swipe up will reveal the full list. What I also like is the new settings – they are much more user friendly to the non-techie, and the Setup menus help first time buyers check out and configure all the features of their phone.
Internet & Email
Email has always been RIM’s forte; it’s something that has enabled their iron grip on the business market, and it is what made BlackBerry a household brand. As you’d expect then, the 9380 does email just like any other BlackBerry. That is to say, very well. Multiple account support with unified inbox support (all messages from all accounts can be shown in one message list) is present, as is the conversation view for Gmail users. Exchange email can be added of course, and all messages are pushed to your device as soon as your inbox receives them. The customisable profiles mean you can also adjust the notifications you receive, configurable to be specific for a certain type of message from a certain inbox – everything from the duration and number of vibrations to the volume of the tone can be changed.
While email has traditionally been a RIM stronghold, internet is not so much. With OS 7 though, browser performance has improved by a long way from 6.1, which in turn was a big improvement on OS 5 that the Curve 8520 sports. The browser in OS 7 brings it up to speed with the frontrunners such as WP7, Android, and iOS, though you can’t expect the 800MHz processor to keep up with the latest dual core phones. Even so, the 9380 loads pages relatively quickly, and most sites are rendered as they were intended to look. Heavy, media based sites do bog the phone down a bit, but the majority of pages load fine.
Being a full touch phone, the 9380 has only a virtual keyboard to offer, which is something really quite new to RIM. While their hardware qwerty keyboards are as close to perfection as it gets, the 9380 makes do with a compact on screen one which I consider to be the Achilles heel of this device. It is perhaps the fact that RIM have a very high bar set for themselves in terms of input options, but nonetheless, the keyboard is not great to say the least. Let’s start with the positives – keyboard rotation from portrait to landscape and vice versa is quick, and being such a tiny screen, three options are available. There’s the classic full qwerty, the SureType qwerty (two letters to one ‘key’) and the multi tap T9 style one. The optical trackpad is also useful for precisely selecting text.
Now for the other side. Instead of tearing it to pieces, I’ll just point out things that need to improve. First issue is with the poor accuracy. It’s much more noticeable when pecking at the full qwerty in portrait mode. Even in landscape, typing needs to be quite slow and careful to avoid typos, which means you won’t be able to type anywhere near the speed of a real BlackBerry hardware keyboard. Secondly, the prediction – while it is there, it just felt as if the word I wanted was hardly ever one of the three suggestions it gives. Finally (probably quite a minor issue to most) is that the letters on the keyboard are always capitals. On other OS’s, the keyboard displays upper or lower case letters depending on whether you have pressed shift or caps lock. On the 9380, (and all of BlackBerry’s virtual keyboards as far as I know) it’s always capitals, so it is not as easy to tell if you are about to type in upper or lower case letters.
At the end of the day, the virtual keyboard here is nowhere near as usable as the ones on Windows Phone, iOS, or Android. Yet those are nowhere near the hardware BlackBerry keyboard experience. If you need to type more than the occasional message (and if you’re looking at BlackBerry, the chances are you will) then the 9380 probably isn’t for you.
BlackBerry have all of the main bases covered when it comes to social networking – official Facebook, Twitter, foursquare, LinkedIn, Google Talk, Windows Live Messenger, Yahoo Messenger, and of course the famed BlackBerry Messenger apps are all either preloaded or available to download from the App World. A quick note on the App World now I’ve mentioned it; it’s not great. The app selection (especially for games) is poor, the app makes the phone unbearably slow when downloading and installing apps, and some updates require a full restart. When compared with other app stores, the App World is comfortably at the bottom. This is definitely something that RIM needs to improve to truly modernise their phones, as it’s all about apps now. But once your social networking apps are on the phone, it works quite well; notifications integrate neatly into the messages list and the notifications bar.
Although phones have countless other functions, telephony is still the most basic yet vital requirement. Well, the Curve 9380 does well here, with all calls loud and clear on both ends. While the loudspeaker performance isn’t great, it is inline with what you’d expect from a small smartphone, and it will get the job done. Signal strength is another area that this Curve and BlackBerries in general handle well. It may be thanks to the plastic construction, but either way, the 9380 holds onto a signal well and generally displays either the same or one more bar of signal than what I’d usually get in a given area.
The Curve lineup have never had quality cameras, probably to meet the price point, and the 9380 doesn’t break the mould here. The megapixel count has been upped to 5MP (from 2MP on the previous Curves) but there is still no autofocus. This makes close up shots blurry, so the camera is best used taking photos about a foot away or more. The 4x digital zoom is not too shabby either, if you don’t view the picture full screen. The photo of the road has been taken again at full zoom, where you can see the Cathedral in the distance. The addition of a flash is also welcome, as it was something that we missed on the previous Curves. This makes low light pictures possible (but still not great), though I’d say it is even more useful when used with torch apps that utilise the LED flash. When given the right conditions though (decent lighting and nothing too close) the 5MP camera can take some respectable shots.
Battery performance is something that is difficult to quantify, partly because everyone’s usage is different, and partly because battery performance changes over time. For what it’s worth, I found that with the 1230mAh battery in the box, the battery got me around 2 days of use. The phone was calling for its charger after about 30 mins of calls, a lot of messaging, internet, and general fiddling. With more conservative use, it is possible to squeeze just under 3 days, but if you really push it, it won’t survive much more than a waking day. As you can tell, it all depends on how much you’re using it, but in my experience, 3 days is the upper limit which is pretty respectable for a modern smartphone.
In virtually every sense, the Curve 9380 is a downgraded Torch 9860. While that Torch was a decent effort from RIM, the design brief doesn’t transfer as well to a cheaper device. That doesn’t mean I think it’s a particularly bad phone though. At its current £200+ price tag, it isn’t great value for money, and that is why I wouldn’t recommend buying it (at that price anyway); while it does everything it should, it still doesn’t really impress in the wider view of things:
I think the biggest problem that the 9380 has is that it doesn’t really have a target market, or even a clear place in the BlackBerry lineup. Allow me to explain. First-time smartphone buyers would probably be comparing the 9380 to budget Android smartphones (maybe even an iPhone 3GS too). From that standpoint, Android offers better value for money, and the iPhone is unquestionably better, though that comparison is unfair. If these buyers wanted a BlackBerry ‘because it’s a BlackBerry’ (i.e. for BBM and email) then one with a hardware keyboard is an obvious choice. Even for those who aren’t hardcore messengers, why choose BlackBerry over better value options? And for current BlackBerry Curve owners looking to upgrade, the lack of a hardware keyboard will feel very much like a downgrade. In essence, I feel that BlackBerry themselves have prevented the 9380 achieving any traction in the market – the 9360 does everything the 9380 does, but with a keyboard too. It might have a smaller screen, but resolution is what really matters and in that regard they are identical. If you’re hell-bent on a full touchscreen phone, the Orange San Francisco II, Monte Carlo, HTC Wildfire S, and Samsung Galaxy Ace are all better buys. If you want a BlackBerry (Curve), then the 9360 (or any other current BlackBerry) is an unquestionably better choice.
Review by: Vince