Katherine Boehret

Recent Columns by Walt Mossberg

A BlackBerry That’s Easy on Your Thumbs

People who use smart phones with physical keyboards are well aware that they don’t look as cool as someone who touches glass to type and flicks a finger to scroll through emails, Web pages and photos. But for many, physical keyboards are easier to use than touch screens, and this fact, alone, cures even the worst case of touch-screen envy.

In two weeks, Research in Motion Inc. (RIMM) and T-Mobile will make available the latest version of the BlackBerry: the Curve 8900. This device works as a basic BlackBerry and doesn’t have a sleek touch screen or completely overhauled operating system, nor is it meant to compete with the likes of Apple’s iPhone. But it has a physical keyboard and still manages to look stylish — and that’s no small feat.

The Curve 8900 costs $200 after a $100 mail-in rebate and with a two-year T-Mobile contract. In the BlackBerry family, this model falls into the Goldilocks category of not too big, not too small — just right. RIM’s $300 BlackBerry Bold came out in November, but its large size and high price were turn-offs for some. The BlackBerry Pearl and Pearl Flip are tiny and portable, but use condensed keyboards with multiple letters on each key, which can hinder fast typing.

After using the new Curve for a week, I found it offers a satisfying combination of high-end features, ideal size and good looks. Best of all, its physical keyboard is a dream for thumbs. Unfortunately, its $200 price comes with very little memory — only 256 megabytes built in and a memory card that adds another 256 megabytes. To expand this memory, users must buy microSD cards.

The new Curve is lighter, thinner and not as wide compared with its predecessor. Its surface, including the keyboard, is glossy black with a striking silver frame. The device’s top edge slopes off in a smooth diagonal that cleverly disguises the Lock and Mute/Standby buttons beneath that top-edge piece of black plastic. Number keys are labeled in red so they stand out on the black keyboard and are easy to see when making phone calls. Right and left convenience keys on each side of the BlackBerry can be assigned to open your favorite functions.

BlackBerry Curve
The $200 Curve 8900

Unlike older BlackBerrys that all use the same USB cables and chargers, the Curve 8900 has a micro USB port, which is slightly smaller than those on older cables and won’t work with them.

Photo Opportunity

The Curve 8900 shares two features with the touch screen BlackBerry Storm: Both use the same 3.2-megapixel camera with auto focus, image stabilization, 2x digital zoom and flash; and both have the same 480×360 pixel bright screen resolution. I used the camera on my Curve 8900 to capture some photos of Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C., a few days after the inaugural parade, and friends couldn’t believe I took them using a BlackBerry. This camera can also capture video clips.

I really enjoyed using the Curve 8900’s newly designed keyboard. Its keys are flatter than those of the old Curve, which felt like typing on plastic bubbles when I switched back. The flatter design of the new Curve’s keys made them feel less resistant, and allowed my fingers to more quickly move from one key to the next. The larger Send, Menu, Escape and End keys that surround the trackball also are flatter and are on the same plane as the screen, giving the surface a smoother look.

This BlackBerry uses T-Mobile’s Quad-band EDGE, not a 3G connection like the BlackBerry Bold or Apple iPhone. For an extra $10 a month in addition to a monthly plan, users may opt for T-Mobile’s Unlimited HotSpot Calling.

Wi-Fi Detector

This feature works so that the Curve automatically detects when it’s near a pre-set Wi-Fi network and uses that network for voice calling or data instead of T-Mobile’s connection. Phone calls that are started in Wi-Fi networks will seamlessly be handed over to the T-Mobile network and the minutes won’t be docked from your data plan; calls started in the cellular network will switch over to Wi-Fi but will continue to dock minutes from your voice plan.

I made a handful of phone calls on the Curve, and the connection sounded clear on both ends. According to RIM, the battery life of the Curve 8900 beats that of the old Curve 8300 in talk time — 5.5 hours compared with four hours — but is a little weaker than the old Curve’s standby battery life, lasting just 15 days between charges, compared with 17 days. I didn’t run an exact battery test, but I noticed that I didn’t have to change my charging schedule from what I regularly do with the old Curve 8300.

I downloaded a few apps, including Facebook, Google Maps and TwitterBerry, and these worked as they do on my older Curve, though a bit faster. Compared with the iPhone’s selection, BlackBerry apps look rather primitive. RIM plans to open an app store in March that will sell apps that will work with this new Curve and other BlackBerrys. Apple (AAPL) and Google (GOOG) have already established app stores that users can access from their devices.

Too Little Memory

This is where the 8900’s relatively minuscule memory becomes a problem. It’s easy to use up the 512 megabytes of total memory by downloading apps like these and taking large-sized photos or video clips with the built-in camera. Comparatively, the $199 iPhone comes with 8 gigabytes of built-in memory. But memory cards are fairly inexpensive today; a quick search on BestBuy.com (BBY) found 2-gigabyte microSD cards for $15.

A 512-megahertz processor gives this new Curve some zip, and I had no trouble quickly surfing the Web, opening Web links embedded in emails or attached photos and Word documents. Videos, including a John Mayer music video and various YouTube clips, played without any jerky skips. Sound was emitted from a small but mighty speaker on the back of the Curve.

Some people simply won’t abandon their physical keyboards for touch screen, no matter what. For them, the BlackBerry Curve 8900 blends the comfortable size, attractive keyboard and stylish design necessary to make a winning device.

Edited By Walter S. Mossberg

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