How to Tell if New BlackBerry Curve's Right for You

Today, Research In Motion's (RIM) brand new BlackBerry Curve 8520 goes on sale in the United States, through T-Mobile. The Curve 8520, RIM's third iteration of the Curve, falls directly in the middle of both RIM and T-Mobile's Curve product lines.

After T-Mobile initially released the Curve 8320 in September, 2007, it quickly became one of the carrier's best selling smartphones. More than a year later, T-Mobile was the first U.S. carrier to release RIM's second-generation Curve, the BlackBerry 8900. And today, the carrier is first to offer the next Curve, the BlackBerry 8520.

Yesterday, I attended RIM's Curve 8520 launch event in New York City, where the company showed off all kinds of up-and-coming wares along with the new device. I spent quite a bit of time with the new Curve and was able to mostly size it up.

Now, on to the Curve 8520 features and technical specifications, as well as my breakdown of why the new Curve could be a perfect fit for you--or not.

And if you're interested in additional BlackBerry devices, check out my takes on the BlackBerry Curve 8900 or Tour 9630.

How to Tell if the BlackBerry Curve 8520 is for You

First and foremost, are you a T-Mobile customer or are you considering switching to T-Mobile? If not, you'll want to pass on the new Curve 8520, since it's currently a T-Mobile exclusive. (Additional carriers, including Verizon Wireless, are expected to release the Curve 8530, dubbed "BlackBerry Aries," in the future, and AT&T will likely get its own 8520 variant.)

If switching your carrier to T-Mobile is a possibility, you'll want to make sure that T-Mobile provides adequate service in the areas where you live, work or spend most of your time.

The best way to determine if you reside or work in an area with strong T-Mobile coverage is to speak with a friend, colleague, neighbor, etc., who uses the carrier on a daily basis. Get general impressions of each carrier's coverage in your areas. Then check out the appropriate online coverage maps. And visit a T-Mobile retail location to speak with company representatives. In other words, do a bit of research.

If you find that T-Mobile coverage isn't up to snuff where you roam most often, you'll probably want to avoid the BlackBerry Curve 8520--at least for now.

Next up, some quick technical specifications from RIM:

* Quad-band GSM/EDGE/GPRS (850/900/1800/1900MHz)

* Wi-Fi (802.11b/g)

* UMA support; T-Mobile HotSpot @Home Wi-Fi calling

* 2.0 MP camera with 5X digital zoom and video recording (No flash)

* 256MB Flash Memory

* High-resolution 320 X 240 pixel screen

* 1150 mAHr removable/rechargeable cryptographic Lithium cell battery (same as Curve 83xx family)

* DataViz Documents To Go

* Support for BlackBerry Media Sync (iTunes playlist sync)

* BlackBerry OS v4.6.1

* Expandable memory slot for up to 16GB of storage

* Support for the messaging capabilities of the BlackBerry platform, including push e-mail, popular instant messaging applications and premium phone features

The feature that really jumps out at me about the BlackBerry Curve 8520 is the brand new trackpad that replaced the traditional BlackBerry trackball found on the majority of RIM's newer devices. The Curve 8520 is the first BlackBerry to sport the trackpad, and I like it very much. It's not quite as sensitive as a BlackBerry trackball, so I bumped up the sensitivity settings, but it didn't take long before I felt like I'd been using it for years.

This trackpad addresses one of RIM's most common BlackBerry issues: stuck, dirty or broken track balls. Ask heavy BlackBerry users how they feel about the current trackball navigation system, and you'll probably get very similar responses about how the trackballs need to be replaced often. The new trackpad has no moving parts and there's less room for dirt or grit to sneak into the device's internal components. It's a welcome improvement--as long as it stands up to the test of time.

Next, Curve 8520 pricing. Make no mistake about it: This is a BlackBerry, and BlackBerrys are typically associated with business users. The Curve 8520 lives up to its BlackBerry name, offering RIM's tried-and-true messaging and security features, but this device is aimed at any entry-level smartphone audience, both enterprise and consumer. As such, it should be priced accordingly.

My take: Whoever sets T-Mobile's pricing on new devices needs a very long nap or something else restorative, because the company's introductory price of $129.99 with a new service plan is ridiculous. (The higher-end Curve 8900, which has a number of features left out of the new Curve, including a much better camera and flash, as well as both Wi-Fi and GPS, sells for only $20 more.)

Thankfully, Wal-Mart has stepped in and decided to sell the new Curve for a much more reasonable--and appropriate--price: $48.88 with a new two-year service contract. That's a great price for a new BlackBerry, and I suspect T-Mobile will soon be forced to drop its price to compete.

The Curve 8520 is also the first BlackBerry to feature dedicated media player controls. The device has three media-centric buttons on its top side: Play/Pause, Rewind and Fast Forward. These should be valuable to anyone who frequently uses a BlackBerry to listen to music via headphones or via stereo transmitters like RIM's BlackBerry Speakerphone Visor Mount. (Note: The Curve 8520 also has a standard, 3.5mm headset jack, so you can use your favorite headphones.)

T-Mobile's great HotSpot @Home Wi-Fi calling service is also available to Curve 8520 users, enabling them to make free Wi-Fi calls whenever they're at home. (Read about the pros and cons of dual-mode, "VoWi-Fi phones" like T-Mobile's BlackBerry Curve lineup.)

The new Curve is speedy; it packs the same 512MHz processor found in its elder-Curve-8900-brother. The Curve 83xx family features 312MHz processors.

Like all of RIM's devices since the Pearl Flip 8220, the Curve 8520 has a microUSB port for charging and syncing data.

It comes in two colors: Frost blue and black. And a variety of colorful skins are available for customization.

And the device ships with a 1GB microSD memory card.

Finally, my two minor gripes: the underwhelming two megapixel camera and the fact that the Curve 8520 doesn't come with any sort of case.

Two megapixel quality is not enough for this device. All of RIM's new devices--except the Curve 8520, of course--have 3.2 megapixel cameras, with features like autofocus. But that's not even the worst part. The Curve 8520 has no flash, let alone auto-focus functionality.

For a consumer-oriented device, the lack of a flash is significant, to say the least. The iPhone has been repeatedly blasted for its lack of a camera flash, but I suspect RIM justified its decision to leave out the Curve 8520 flash because of the iPhone. (Hey, if the iPhone doesn't have it, not ALL of our devices need it either, right?)

I asked RIM why it decided to forego the flash and was told it was to reduce manufacturing costs. That's understandable, and the $50 Wal-Mart price point sure is nice, but I still think the Curve 8520 should have a flash.

Finally, the Curve 8520, Storm and the Pearl Flip 82xx are the only current BlackBerry devices that don't come with any sort of case. I'm sure the decision not to include a holster, slip-case or skin is related to cost-cutting, as well, but it rubs me the wrong way, just the same.

There you have it, a quick breakdown of the brand new BlackBerry Curve 8520 from T-Mobile. Still looking for additional smartphone options? Check out "Forget iPhone 3G S: Eight Great New iPhone Alternatives."

This story, "How to Tell if New BlackBerry Curve's Right for You" was originally published by CIO.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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