The BlackBerry Curve 9360 is a smart phone with a full Qwerty keyboard, 5-megapixel camera and the latest iteration of RIM's BlackBerry operating system.
Should I buy the BlackBerry Curve 9360?
BlackBerry's Curve range has always been about providing the full Qwerty experience on a modest budget, and that hasn't changed with the Curve 9360.
What is different is the fact that unlike its 8520 sibling -- which was hamstrung by a lack of 3G connectivity -- the Curve 9360 manages to pack in a surprising amount of RIM's best gear.
BlackBerry OS 7 is on board, as is near field communication (NFC) technology, which allows you to make contactless payments using your phone; for example, you will be able to pay for a coffee and a sandwich in one of the growing number of outlets where NFC terminals are being installed. You'll also find a nippy processor (by BlackBerry standards, at least), and a 5-megapixel camera. Also included are 3G, Bluetooth and Wi-Fi.
Less positive is the lack of a touchscreen or HD video recording. A merely average battery life and slow web performance are further drawbacks. It's also impossible to ignore the fact that the number of apps and games available on the BlackBerry App World is pathetically small compared to rival app stores.
Although it has had its fair share of problems lately, RIM still manages to attract thousands of customers each year, thanks to its Qwerty keyboards and robust messaging service. If you're a lover of physical buttons but can't afford the pricier BlackBerry handsets, then the Curve is a solid choice.
BlackBerry OS 7
The Curve 9360 features the latest and greatest edition of RIM's BlackBerry OS. Already seen on the likes of the Torch 9810 and Torch 9860, OS 7 is one of the most visually appealing iterations of the software yet.
Gone are the stark icons seen in OS 5, replaced as they have been by colourful images that call to mind the menu design of Apple's iPhone.
Navigating around the phone is pretty easy, but there are times when you really wish you had a touchscreen. It feels odd not to be able to use OS 7 to its full potential on the Curve 9360 because it was engineered with a dual-interface that supports touchscreens in mind.
BlackBerry Messenger 6 (BBM) comes as part of OS 7. It's sure to make the Curve 9360 incredibly popular with teenage mobile users. Each instant message you send to your friends incurs no additional charge to your BlackBerry monthly subscription cost. No wonder Apple has decided to pay homage with its own iMessage functionality.
The most exciting thing about this particular version of BBM is that it now allows you to send messages from within apps and games.
Let's get one thing absolutely clear here -- the BlackBerry Curve 9360 is one seriously good-looking handset.
While the Curve line may be aimed at the cheaper end of the market, the Curve 9360 feels surprisingly luxurious. It's still fashioned from plastic, but the build quality is impressive. There's no creaking parts or unsightly joins. This is even more striking when you consider that the device weighs less than 100g.
The Curve 9360 is also quite a svelte customer, with a thickness of 11mm. While that's not quite as thin as the hardly-there Motorola Razr, it's a massive improvement over previous Curve designs, which tended to be somewhat chunky.
Although the casing of the Curve 9360 is a surprise, there's still plenty here that will be instantly familiar to BlackBerry boffins. The traditional row of action buttons -- including the twin call commands, Menu and the all-important Back button -- remain largely unchanged. They surround the optical track-pad, which is another RIM hallmark.
The top of the device features the 3.5mm headphone socket and lock button. The latter is the same as the one seen on the BlackBerry Torch 9860. While it initially appears to be touch-sensitive, it's actually a physical button residing under a plastic cover that flexes slightly when pressed.
The right-hand side of the Curve 9360 has the volume controls and the handy Convenience Key, the latter of which can be customised as a shortcut to various apps or functions. Due to the thinness of the phone, these buttons have been squashed down to the extent that they're little more than small ridges. Pressing them in a hurry is often a hit-and-miss affair.
The left-hand side of the phone is bare apart from the micro-USB port, which handles charging and data transfer.
Flipping the phone over reveals a glossy plastic back panel and that instantly-recognisable BlackBerry logo. There's a small, almost invisible groove on the side of the phone that allows you to slide your nail in and prise off the battery cover; it took us a few minutes of confused fiddling to even realise it was there.
When you've got a whacking great Qwerty keyboard on the front of a phone, it stands to reason that the screen size is going to suffer -- there's just no way you can have a massive display and all those lovely buttons. Unless, that is, you want a phone that's so long you'll never be able to fit it in your pocket.
Naturally, this rule applies to the Curve 9360, which has a rather small 2.44-inch screen. Some Android devices in the same price bracket sport spacious 4.3-inch screens. That makes the Curve 9360's display credentials seem dismal.
On the plus side, with a resolution of 480x360 pixels, the Curve 9360 boasts a pixel density of 246ppi, which ensures a pin-sharp image quality. The TFT LCD panel also provides a bold and colourful image. It makes viewing photos and browsing the web much more pleasing.
Unlike its sibling, the BlackBerry Bold 9900, the Curve 9360 doesn't feature a touchscreen. This is very much in keeping with the low-cost ethics of the Curve range. But when you consider that BlackBerry OS 7 has been built to accommodate both physical and touchscreen inputs, it's a let-down.
Touchscreens are appearing even on the cheapest of Android devices, so it wouldn't have broken the bank for RIM to factor one into the Curve 9360's design.
The keyboard is arguably the star of any BlackBerry device (apart from the Torch 9860, for obvious reasons), and that certainly applies here. Text input on the Curve 9360 is blissfully intuitive. The keys themselves have a decent amount of space between them, which avoids accidental multi-button presses.
RIM has gone to great lengths to keep the thickness of the Curve 9360 down and that goes for the keyboard too. The buttons sit lower in the casing than on previous BlackBerry devices. Thankfully this doesn't result in a drop in responsiveness or overall comfort.
If you've gotten caught up in the mobile CPU race of late, you may be disappointed to learn that the Curve 9360 isn't sporting a flashy dual-core processor.
Instead, there's an 800MHz single-core chip beating at the heart of the phone. This puts it on an equal footing with the Orange Monte Carlo and Motorola Defy -- two Android devices that aren't exactly on the cutting edge.
The humble nature of the CPU doesn't matter. The Curve 9360 positively purrs along, with smooth scrolling, fast loading and generally pleasing performance. That's something that many dual-core Android devices can't muster, despite their raw power.
Of course, it could be argued that BlackBerry OS 7 is taxing the hardware much less than the incredibly versatile Android 2.3, but that's beside the point. RIM has selected what appears to be the ideal processor for the task at hand. We couldn't fault the phone's performance during our review period other than when it came to website rendering (see below).
Internal storage and expandability
There's 512MB of storage on the Curve 9360, which will hold a few photos and apps, but means the phone can't be relied upon as a music player or digital camera replacement.
Thankfully you can be a little more adventurous by making use of the Curve 9360's microSD card slot, which is located under the battery cover. The unit we reviewed didn't come with a microSD card, but you may find that some networks will supply one for free. The phone accepts media up to 32GB in capacity.
Another bonus is that microSD cards are hot-swappable; you don't have to power-down the handset and remove the battery to get to the card slot. It's also worth noting that you cannot record videos without a card present.
Applications and Internet
Apps are fast becoming one of the main reasons to own a smart phone.The iPhone App Store and Android Market are bursting with quality downloads. The trouble is, with those two giants dominating the scene, rival stores end up looking bare in comparison.
That's certainly true for the BlackBerry App World, which has a laughably small selection of games and applications when placed alongside Apple and Google's vast repositories. If you're keen to fill your phone with cool software, you may want to consider the alternatives before rallying to BlackBerry.
Hitting the web on the 9360 is one of the only times you'll spot the weaknesses of that 800MHz processor. Pages take a painfully long time to render, especially when you're used to the swiftness of surfing on iOS and Android. Even when you're connected to Wi-Fi, the phone's browser plods along with all the pace of a tortoise with chronic bunions.
The lack of a touchscreen also hurts the Curve 9360 in this area. It's almost instinctive to want to pinch-to-zoom on mobiles these days. Having to manually zoom in and out using buttons feels odd.
On the plus side, that pixel-rich display does a good job of showing-off websites, with sharp text and detailed images being rendered perfectly.
It goes without saying that Adobe Flash support doesn't make the cut. A month ago we'd have moaned about this omission, but Adobe's recent bombshell regarding the end of Flash on mobile devices means that it's a non-issue now.
Camera and video recording
Seeing as the Curve 3G 9300 had a 2-megapixel snapper, the fact that the 9360 comes with 5 megapixels is a cause for celebration.
The Curve 9360's camera is best described as underwhelming. Granted, it boasts an LED flash (again, this can be considered a real advancement in the Curve range), but it lacks auto-focus. This means that close-up shots are problematic.
The LED flash is actually pretty decent and doesn't totally over-expose shots in darkened environments.
Another positive is the wide range of shooting options, including face detection and image enhancement. Heck, the Curve 9360 even has modes that make images taken in snowy landscapes look better -- although given the current lack of white stuff, we weren't able to test this comprehensively.
The lack of HD video recording on the Curve 9360 is a bitter disappointment, especially when you consider that it's appearing on budget Android devices -- like the Sony Ericsson Live with Walkman -- for a much lower cost.
The best you'll get is the 640x480-pixel resolution, which is fine if you don't intend to transfer your videos to your computer or watch them on your TV.
A few years ago it was perfectly reasonable to assume that mobile users would only want to share snaps and videos with other mobile users, but these days -- thanks largely to the advent of DLNA -- you can stream your treasured moments to your TV set. This means that camera quality and HD video have become much more important. It's frustrating to see RIM lagging in this area.
Remember the BlackBerry Curve 8520? Amazingly, it launched in 2009 minus 3G connectivity. That pretty much sums up what Curve users have had to endure for the past few years -- decent phones that lacked one or two essential features.
Mercifully, the Curve lineage has turned a corner -- in connectivity terms, at least. The Curve 9360 has all the options you could hope for; 3G and EDGE are both supported, as is Wi-Fi.
This means you can get fast data transfer when you're out and about (assuming your network has 3G coverage wherever you are, of course), and you can use your home wireless network to achieve even faster download and upload speeds.
Assisted GPS ensures that you can pinpoint your current location with a fair degree of accuracy. Meanwhile, Bluetooth allows you to exchange small amounts of data with friends. You can also connect devices this way such as wireless headphones or hands-free kits, without the added headache of getting all tangled up in cables.
The biggest shock is that RIM has included near field communication capability in the Curve 9360, which puts the handset ahead of many more expensive phones.
NFC appeared with a fanfare on the Google Nexus S a while back. It has since featured on the BlackBerry Bold 9900. The technology is tipped to revolutionise the way in which we make payments. Using your phone's NFC connection, you can turn it into a virtual wallet, paying for goods and services with no more than a swipe against a shop's till point.
NFC hasn't quite caught on in the UK yet but it's sure to become popular over the next year or so. NFC terminals are apparently being rolled out in time for the Olympics in London.
While previous Curve handsets may have scrimped on features to keep the price low, one area they always excelled in was stamina. The battery life of the Curve 8520 put other smart phones to shame. It would last days rather than hours on a single charge, making it ideal for people who didn't want their handset constantly tethered to a wall socket.
Alas, this era of battery brilliance is coming to an end. As RIM has started to add connectivity options to the Curve range, the stamina of these phones has slowly dropped off.
The increased demands of 3G and Wi-Fi mean you'll be charging the Curve 9360 at least once a day -- which is par for the course with many Android devices.
It's not just data traffic levels that cause this unfortunate drop-off in staying power; RIM has packed a 1,000mAh power cell inside the Curve 9360 -- that's a step down from the 1,150mAh version seen in the Curve 3G 9300.
By modern standards, putting such a low capacity battery in a smart phone seems like an almost suicidal choice. By way of comparison, the Galaxy Nexus has a 1,700mAh cell, while the iPhone 4S is sporting a battery with a 1,432mAh capacity.
However, the power demands of both those handsets far exceed those of the Curve 9360. With a single-core 800MHz processor and a small 480x360-pixel screen, RIM's device doesn't drink juice the same way a dual-core monster does.
Consequently, you can easily make the phone last a whole day on one charge, although this will obviously change if you're a heavy user. The bottom line is that BlackBerry phones no longer guarantee impressive stamina. That will be upsetting for many hardcore fans.
When ranked alongside the latest mid-range Android efforts, the BlackBerry Curve 9360 comes across as a disappointment. There's no touchscreen, dual-core processor or HD video recording. The selection of apps available to download is lacklustre.
However, when compared to previous Curve phones, the 9360 cannot be seen as anything other than a massive improvement. The super-thin design is gorgeous and BlackBerry OS 7 runs as smoothly as silk -- despite the humble nature of the 800Hz CPU. BlackBerry Messenger 6 is as great as ever and is sure to keep many a text-loving teen loyal to the brand.
But therein lies the problem -- RIM is effectively preaching to the converted. There's little here that is likely to appeal to anyone who doesn't already own a BlackBerry device. While the company should be commended for improving on its previous efforts, it arguably should be looking at what Google's hardware partners are up to in the mid-range market.
Phones such as the Sony Ericsson Xperia Ray and Xperia Neo cost around the same price as the Curve 9360, yet they offer more power, larger displays -- touchscreens, to boot -- and a wider range of games and applications.
Having said that, the 9360 is unquestionably the best Curve yet. That is likely to be all that matters to hardcore BlackBerry fans shopping on a budget.
For those of you who are unsure, we'd highly recommend that you take a look at what Apple and Google are offering right now before laying down your moolah.