While BlackBerry maker Research In Motion has a reputation for physical keyboards on its smartphones, it’s actually been in the touchscreen business for a long time. Way back in 2008, after seeing the surging success of the iPhone 3G, RIM released the BlackBerry Storm, complete with an unusual screen that pressed down like a button. Sadly for RIM, it proved to be a flop. In 2010, RIM returned with a hybrid model, the BlackBerry Torch 9860 which has been followed by a string of models that have seen RIM introduce touchscreens into almost all of its phones.
The Curve brand is RIM’s budget smartphone line, and the Curve 9380 screams ‘affordable’ specs: a sub-1GHz processor, a low resolution 320×480 touchscreen and 512MB of internal storage. Specification has never been at the heart of the BlackBerry proposition, however and there’s a reason so many of the eight million BlackBerrys being used in the country right now are Curves… RIM was never known for crafting attractive, petite smartphones. The Torch and Torch 2 are clumpy, Star Trek style business devices but that all changed with the recent introduction of the Curve 9360, a new entry level model that’s just 11mm deep, and seems even thinner.
The BlackBerry Curve 9380 mimics its design language, despite the absence of buttons. While the chrome trim, domed top and bottom and heavy use of black plastic have all been hallmarks of BlackBerry for years, they don’t feel cheap or tired here, largely due to that thin profile and light 98g weight.
Physically, it’s not lacking anything, though it doesn’t throw in any surprises. While the clicky SurePress screen of the Storm is thankfully long gone, you still get a row of physical buttons below the display (Call, menu, back and reject) that are all part of the plastic front face. They’re easy enough to push down and that ease of use is shared by the small optical trackpad. In practice, we rarely used it, but it was useful for accurate text selection.
The left hand-side features a micro USB charger, while the right holds the standard volume controls and camera key. One change Curve users might not be used to has taken place on top: dedicated media keys have now been removed, and the whole top side now acts as a screen lock key. In a welcome addition, the 3.5mm audio jack has been moved to the top.
Surprisingly, the low-resolution, 360×380 capacitive touchscreen on the Curve 9380 is great: bursting with colours, broad viewing angles and fantastic outdoor visibility. It’s relatively sharp too, as the display measures just 3.2 inches. BlackBerry call quality and battery life are never an issue and that’s as true here as ever: we got more than two days of heavy use. Interestingly, The Curve contains an NFC chip for wireless payments and data transfer, but think of it as future proofing – until partners get their act together.Though the Curve 9380 runs the latest BlackBerry 7 OS (see page 40), the frequent whirring loading clocks remind us of how little RIM has changed. The 806MHz processor and 512MB of RAM won’t always be enough to handle your heavy app requirements, though it’s fine for camera work.
The browser at least is fast but there is a dealbreaker here – it’s the on-screen keyboard. The keys are narrow, and precious space is wasted on frivolous buttons, like a second Caps Lock, and even the option to change language. For this reason alone, it’s hard to recommend the Curve 9380 to someone already used to a BlackBerry: they just won’t want to accept such a drop in typing speed. But that leaves it as a choice for smartphone newcomers, and it’s hard to see how BlackBerry 7 makes a compelling proposition.
Despite its flawed operating system, there’s a charm to the compact design of the Curve 9380 but it’s the keyboard skills that will disappoint BlackBerry fans. If you demand speed, the Curve 9380 is not your next phone.
What Mobile Test Verdict: 3/5