The BlackBerry Curve 8300 emerged as one of the best smartphone ideas of 2007. It pre-dated the first Android handset by a full year, and unlike the original iPhone, it was priced within reach of the average consumer. It introduced the masses to the possibilities of a connected and capable handset, and was the primary catalyst for the BlackBerry's meteoric rise to household name. With each subsequent iteration, however, the Curve remained a handset geared toward first-time smartphone buyers, and that axiom feels particularly true today.

We're now presented with the Curve 9360 ($29.99, on contract), a device that's ostensibly hobbled in order to differentiate itself from RIM's higher-end offerings, most notably the Torch 9810 ($49), Torch 9860 ($99) and Bold 9900 ($199). Specifically, we refer to its lack of a touchscreen. The omission will certainly be a deal-breaker for some, but whether it causes the market to reject it as a whole remains unknown. For our part, we're most interested in the impact on the handset's usability and its relevance in an increasingly competitive environment. In other words, has RIM included enough improvements to keep its Curve franchise afloat, or will this iteration sink like a stone? Join us after the break, as we delve into the Curve 9360 and explore these finer details.

BlackBerry Curve 9360 review

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Hardware


The BlackBerry Curve 9360 replaces the Curve 3G on AT&T, and thankfully, it ushers in a host of sorely needed improvements. In a surprising twist, the phone's most welcome upgrade is the display itself, which still measures 2.4 inches, but now features a 480 x 360 (HVGA+) screen that renders anti-aliased text noticeably more crisply than its forebear -- thanks in large part to a pixel density that's now approximately 246ppi. Being an LCD screen, it's quite usable in direct sunlight and we were equally pleased with the viewing angles.


Compared to the Torch 9810, which offers HSPA+ speeds, the Curve 9360 feels hobbled next to its stablemates.

Of course, as we've mentioned previously, the screen isn't touch-sensitive, which necessitates use of the trackpad for interacting with the phone. For the most part, the display provides a spacious canvas for navigating apps and menus, but web browsing is a different story entirely. In this case, text often appears too small to read comfortably, which forces you to access system menus to properly zoom in on the content. It's an archaic solution as we enter 2012, and we predict a lot of folks will be frustrated by the exclusion of a touchscreen whenever they load up the web browser.


As you might've guessed, the improvements don't stop with the display. Inside, the phone wields an 800MHz CPU and 512MB of RAM -- a marked improvement over the 3G's 624MHz option with only 256MB. There's also 512MB of internal storage, although only 160MB is available to the end-user for additional applications. A 1GB microSD card comes standard with the Curve 9360, although that capacity seems rather meager by modern standards, even for a budget offering. Unlike prior variants, this little guy packs NFC support, which is accompanied by 802.11b/g/n (WiFi), A-GPS and Bluetooth 2.1. Connectivity-wise, the 9360 can access quadband GSM, GPRS and EDGE networks, and provides 7.2Mbps HSDPA access over the 2100, 1900 and 850MHz bands. When compared to its most closely-priced competitor, the Torch 9810, which offers HSPA+ speeds at 14.4Mbps down, the Curve 9360 again feels hobbled next to its stablemates.

The form factor of the Curve hasn't changed much, which remains 4.3 inches (109mm) tall and 2.4 inches (61mm) wide, yet the latest iteration comes in a bit slimmer at only 0.43 inches (11mm) thick. Unsurprisingly, this latest incarnation is also a bit lighter at just 3.5 ounces (99g), but part of this slimming comes at a sacrifice of battery capacity, which is now rated at 1,000mAh -- a full 150mAh less than before.



Even those with small hands will likely suffer fatigue when typing messages.

Save for the black bezel, you might, at first glance, be hard-pressed to spot the differences between the Curve 9360 and its predecessor, the 3G. However, that's not to say it hasn't gotten a little facelift. While the previous model featured two convenience keys, one on each side, the 9360 foregoes its left button and leaves only the exposed micro-USB 2.0 port on that side. The top of the phone, which previously offered a full array of media keys, now sports only an integrated lock button and a 3.5mm headphone jack. Thankfully, the 9360 retains much of the same functionality as before: the play / pause button now takes the form of a small nub that's situated in the middle of the volume rocker, while navigation through tracks is accomplished with a long-press on the volume up or down keys. The right convenience key is set by default to open the camera application, and can also be used to snap a picture, although we found the trackpad was generally easier to use.

Throughout, the handset is fashioned out of glossy black plastics, and while it's undeniably handsome, the design lacks originality and the gimcrack materials mean you'll constantly be staring at a collection of fingerprints. Quite frankly, and we don't say this very often, the Curve feels too tiny to hold comfortably. In this sense, its reduced thickness is a detriment that will leave many begging for a more substantial option. Even those with small hands will likely suffer fatigue when typing messages, which is further exacerbated by the keyboard itself. Each island key now runs nearly flush with the handset, and while our keystrokes were generally accurate, each key press felt mushy, despite the click sound to the contrary. Put simply, the keyboard on the Curve 9360 feels like a poor impersonator when compared to the quality options on the Torch 9810 and Bold 9900.


In our standard battery rundown test, the Curve eked out just under five hours before calling it quits -- about an hour less than what we typically like to see in smartphones. Similarly, the handset managed to get us through two days of light usage, which is fine, but nowhere near the longevity that BlackBerry users have come to expect. Voice quality also fell below our expectations. While callers had no trouble understanding us, they frequently said our voice sounded muddy and lacked depth. We had similar complaints on our end -- we could comfortably talk with others, but we often perceived their voices as distant and tinny. This held true even for calls to landlines. As for web browsing performance, the Curve chewed through code at a snail's pace, landing a score of 6,840ms in SunSpider 9.1 -- a significant step down from what we've seen in other current BlackBerry devices.

Camera


The handset's back side houses a five megapixel camera that's paired with an LED flash. While we were never particularly impressed with its photographic prowess, we found it to be a simple implementation that delivers usable images in a wide range of scenarios. With an extended depth of field (EDoF) lens, the camera is a focus-free affair that offers "don't think, just shoot" ease of use. While this allows users to quickly grab decent snapshots without fuss, images appear murky at full size, lacking in both detail and crispness. Low-light performance is adequate, although noise creeps into the shots rather quickly. Likewise, macro shots are out of the question with EDoF lenses. The Curve's indoor shooting capabilities are hit-and-miss, often leaving us to rely on the flash to reduce blur.

BlackBerry Curve 9360 sample shots

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Even the software itself is geared toward simplicity, and offers a wide variety of scene modes that are designed to enhance images based on the subject and lighting condition. Face detection, portrait, sports, landscape, party, close-up, snow, beach, night and text are all in the mix, while the default setting automatically adjusts images to any given situation. Our experience suggests the tendency of the software is to make colors appear more vibrant, even to the point of "pulling" additional blue from the sky on a relatively cloudy day. Hence, coloration is rarely accurate, and while the end result is usually pleasant, we found over-saturation to be an occasional issue. There's no option to disable these enhancements, either. While some may prefer to eschew the additional processing, the oversight seems forgivable. After all, the camera on the 9360 is hardly meant for photo purists, but rather for those who wish to take handsome snapshots for online albums with minimal effort.


Video recording on the Curve 9360 is limited to a maximum resolution of 640 x 480 (VGA), with 176 x 144 (MMS) being the only other option. It captures movies at 29 frames per second and does a rather good job at conveying fluid motion. Of course, this isn't saying much when most smartphones capture VGA video as the bare minimum -- but again, it's perfectly sufficient for use on the web. In the settings, you'll find another smattering of scene modes, although these are limited to portrait, landscape, closeup, beach and automatic.

Software


In the days of modern operating systems such as Android, iOS and Windows Phone, using the BlackBerry OS feels more akin to a graphing calculator with an address book and a heavy coat of lipstick.

There's no kind way to say it, but BlackBerry 7 OS is stuck in the doldrums of time. It's a former champion fighting well past its prime, desperately longing for retirement -- if only an adequate replacement were ready to take its place. That's not to suggest the interface isn't relatively attractive or intuitive, but RIM's software improvements over the years have been incremental and largely superficial. The OS still struggles with multitasking -- for example, music cuts out when we take pictures -- and despite better renders from the WebKit browser, navigating the web with a cursor on a smartphone feels antiquated and slow. In the days of modern operating systems such as Android, iOS and Windows Phone, using the BlackBerry OS feels more akin to a graphing calculator with an address book and a heavy coat of lipstick.


Modernity aside, for those who've come to know the BlackBerry's inner workings through the years, it continues to fit like a glove and behave as expected. We appreciate the setup application, which allows AOL, Gmail, Windows Live and Yahoo! users to easily integrate their email, contacts, calendars and instant messaging into the phone. This is likewise true for social networks, with support for Facebook and Twitter out of the gate. The Social Feeds application serves as a fine aggregator of activity from both accounts, and notifications are integrated into the centralized hub that also reports new email messages, appointments and missed calls. The software is very well geared to those who use their phones primarily as a communication device, and in this sense, the BlackBerry approach is hard to discount.

All you BlackBerry loyalists out there might've guessed this handles media in a straightforward way as well. BlackBerry Media Sync integrates nicely with both iTunes and Windows Media Player. After installing this software to our PC, we were able to easily transfer music, photos and videos to the handset. Mac users are also covered with a similar set of tools. Those who prefer the option will also be glad to know that the phone supports USB mass storage for manual management. Our only gripe with respect to media is the insulting 1GB microSD card, which we filled up in the blink of an eye. Generally speaking, anybody looking to use the Curve 9360 for music and videos absolutely must upgrade the storage to get any mileage from the device.


Our time using the Curve's web browser was excruciating, even over WiFi. Given complex pages, the phone often stalled or choked entirely, and on more than one occasion, we waited several minutes for pages to load and render. In these situations, even system features such as the screen lock became unresponsive, and our attempts to return to the home screen only confounded the issue. More often than we care to admit, we were driven to pull the battery rather than wait for the phone to catch its breath. For anybody who might wish to use the web in a meaningful way, the Curve 9360 is an unacceptable solution.

On the surface, it would appear that the Curve ships with an overabundance of software, however in reality, most of these options are merely links to install the applications. While we didn't activate many, we suspect that if each of the 19 extraneous programs had been included, there would be little to no room for users to install apps of their own preference. Items specific to AT&T include AppCenter, Code Scanner, FamilyMap, Maps + Navigation and myAT&T. There are also selections for Bloomberg, CityID, Documents to Go, Vlingo, The Weather Channel and Wikitude, along with chat clients for Google Talk, Windows Live and Yahoo!. Even the games folder is populated with items such as Bejewled, Pac-Man, Sims 3 and World Series of Poker, along with the familiar BrickBreaker and Word Mole.

While applications install without a hitch, BlackBerry OS insists that the phone restart after applying updates. In addition, the update process is generally excruciating, often requiring minutes for each application to download and install, which typically causes the system to become unresponsive. Adding insult to injury, the phone often takes more than four minutes to fully boot. This would have been painful enough on its own, but it's an absolute disaster that users have to suffer these long wait times every time they update an app.

Wrap-up


From a technical and innovation standpoint, RIM's current product lineup is running on fumes. In an era when all that keeps the company going is the existing goodwill of its most dedicated users and a vault of cash reserves, it can't afford to release products that further alienate its customer base and tarnish its reputation. Unfortunately, the BlackBerry Curve 9360 is an outright disaster. While it offers a handful of improvements over the Curve 3G, it does little to keep pace in the highly competitive budget phone arena, where devices such as the Motorola Atrix 4G retail for a similar $29. Even dedicated BlackBerry users should avoid the Curve 9360 at all costs -- it can't match the performance, feature set and overall quality of the Torch 9810, which sells for just $20 more. If RIM intends to keep the Curve franchise alive, it must deliver compelling solutions that will excite consumers. If it's unable to do so without encroaching too much on the Bold's territory, then it's time to make both devices one and call it a day.
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BlackBerry

BlackBerry Curve 9360

Pros

  • Bright, crisp display
  • Affordable price

Cons

  • A touchscreen would've been more intuitive
  • Unacceptable for web browsing
  • Subpar camera
  • Middling battery life
Conclusion

The Curve 9360 fails to keep pace with other consumer smartphones. It's woefully inadequate for all but the most basic communication needs.

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