BlackBerry's Curve 8520 smartphone is too expensive to be a serious contender

BlackBerry's Curve 8520 smartphone is too expensive to be a serious contender

The BlackBerry Curve 8520 is RIM's attempt to produce a low-cost BlackBerry. The question, as always when a premium supplier attempts to slash costs to attract new buyers, is: does it make the cutbacks in the right areas?

Some have described the BlackBerry Curve 8520 as the little brother to the Curve 8900. It feels cheaper, almost plasticky, and doesn't have the ruggedness of Nokia's similarly priced E71.

However, one nice innovation is the small trackpad-style button you use for navigation. This replaces the clickable wheel in phones like the Pearl, and due to the lack of moving parts RIM claims it's inherently sturdier.

Once you get used to its miniscule size the trackpad makes it easy to navigate around the screen. Considering the 8520's price, we're surprised at the bright, sharp screen: there's none of the graininess that can plague low-cost panels.

On its own, it also looks quite vibrant. Place the 8520 next to a BlackBerry Bold and it's clearly a lower grade panel, but few will complain and both photos and movie trailers look fine.

The lower-resolution screen - 320 x 240 - is more of a limitation when it comes to web browsing, but thanks to RIM's highly capable web browser it's quite simple to zoom in and out.

The problem comes when you want to read a longer story and need to keep on pressing down to get to the next chunk.

Some will instantly dismiss the Curve 8520 for internet browsing due to its lack of 3G - instead, this phone relies on GPRS and EDGE (plus, naturally, quad-band GSM).

However, due to the way RIM's compression technology handles internet browsing this didn't prove a hurdle in real-world use.

Even complex pages load up in a few seconds. We also downloaded a 220KB program from BlackBerry App World in around 15 seconds; hardly an awful wait. The bigger problem comes if you're having a conference call and want to check your email: you can't.

We're pleased that Wi-Fi is included as part of the package, though it will quickly destroy your battery life if you accidentally leave it on.

To keep the Curve 8520 slim, RIM opts for a small battery, but due to the low power demands of BlackBerry OS 4.6 and the GPRS radio, it kept going for seven days - despite the fact it was polling for email every half hour. In everyday use, we're confident it can keep going for three or four days without a struggle.

However, battery life plummets if you use the Curve as your MP3 player, and there's every chance you will. Sitting atop the 8520 you'll find three buttons: two for skipping to the next or previous track, the middle one to play or pause music.

The play/pause button triples up as a mute for stopping the phone ringing if you get a call you want to ignore. It's all very convenient; with the Curve sitting in your pocket that's precisely where you want the controls to be.

There's also a full-size 3.5mm jack. The music player itself will never win rave reviews - we're not sure we'd want to navigate a huge library of tracks through its simple interface - and also note there's limited storage on the 8520's built-in flash memory: just 256MB. However, a micro-SD card offers room for expansion.

We should also give brief mention to the 2-megapixel camera, which takes 1600 x 1200 pictures. It's nothing special, but it's fine for snaps in decent light.

The full-size Qwerty keyboard and superb email features of BlackBerrys have become almost so predictable as to barely be worth mentioning, but if this is your first email phone you'd be suitably pleased.

The keyboard, while plasticky, is designed with quick typing in mind, which is why there's a decent amount of space around the buttons (this helps stop annoying accidental clicks).

Bearing in mind that this phone is aimed at first-time buyers, it's worth looking at the BlackBerry interface anew.

This phone is running BlackBerry OS 4.6, which builds upon the same BlackBerry principles of old: you scroll through a flat list of applications, folders and settings to find what you're looking for.

It feels clumsy compared with a touchscreen phone, but once you get used to the icons RIM uses - and this can take a while - you should find it easy to navigate around.

It would be too easy to dismiss the BlackBerry Curve 8520. Certainly it doesn't feel as well-built as a top-end BlackBerry, but it should survive the duration of an 24-month contract without falling apart.

In fact, we think the touchpad will mean on average it lasts longer than phones that rely on a trackwheel.

However, it's impossible to ignore the omissions of GPS and 3G. The lack of GPS makes using map-based applications much more fiddly, and we can guarantee that at some point you'll want to know precisely where you are - but can't find out.

The biggest problem for BlackBerry is that the competition is so fierce. Although the pricing for the Curve has yet to be finalised, you can get the RIM BlackBerry Curve 8900 on a $59-per-month plan with Optus, or buy it outright for $645 - and the 8900 is a more stylish phone with a higher resolution screen.

Even worse for RIM, the Nokia E63 is around $360 to buy outright and virgin Mobile is offering it free on an 24-month, $20-per-month contract.

It's hard to imagine that the BlackBerry Curve 8520 will cost less than the E63, and that makes it less than a bargain. Until this price drops in price to match the Nokia E63, both in pay-as-you-go and contract form, we can't recommend it.

Blackberry Curve 8520
3 6
We like the ambition of producing a low-cost BlackBerry, but until it drops in price there’s too much competition.
Features & Design
Value for money
• BlackBerry:
256MB Flash memory; 2.5in 320 x 240 LCD; Bluetooth; quad-band GSM; EDGE; 802.11bg Wi-Fi; 2mp camera; 1150mAh battery; 3.5mm headphone jack; 60 x 13.9 x 109mm (WDH); 106g
This review appeared in the December, 2009 issue of PC & Tech Authority Magazine

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