The thought of using a clamshell smart phone doesn't exactly sound like the future, not when the big slabs such as the Evo 4G and Droid X are taking over. So when we first laid eyes on the BlackBerry Style 9670, a big flip phone with a full QWERTY keyboard hiding inside, we were skeptical. But lo and behold, this is a good smart phone, thanks to its BlackBerry 6 OS, above-average camera, updated web browser, and speedy performance. Although the display is on the small side, overall this is one of the better BlackBerrys we've tested.
The Style looks like a flip phone that's been widened to include a large external screen, and it slightly resembles a makeup compact. The standard color is black with elegant dark chrome accents, but a Royal Purple version will be available soon. The hinge feels pretty sturdy on this flip, and we like the brushed metal look of the battery cover. However, we found that the glossy front picked up fingerprints quickly. Those with smaller hands may also find that it's difficult to close the clamshell with one hand.
When open, the Style measures 6.9 x 2.4 x .7 inches. When closed, it measures 3.8 x 2.4 x .7 inches. It weighs 4.6 ounces, which is heftier than most BlackBerrys, but it's reasonable considering the form factor.
When you flip the lid on the Style, it reveals a BlackBerry body underneath. There are typical BlackBerry buttons under the screen: Back, Call, End, and, Menu. In between the buttons is a responsive touchpad that provided smooth navigation and good accuracy. The left side of the phone has a micro USB/charging port and a 3.5mm headphone jack. The right side has a volume rocker and a convenience key that is pre-programmed as a dedicated camera button.
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The Style's QWERTY keyboard is fairly responsive, with terraced keys for a better grip. Because the keys are so close together, we couldn't type as quickly as we could on the Curve 3G, but we achieved fairly good accuracy with minimal practice. The Style's keyboard is similar to that of AT&T's BlackBerry Torch 9800, which works fine but is a little flat. We also noticed that the backlight isn't very bright.
The Style's 2-inch 240 x 320 external display shows a clock and new messages as they appear. You can even scroll through previews of your new messages with the volume keys while the device is closed. Checking new messages without opening the phone came in handy often.
Inside, the Style has a 2.7-inch QVGA display with 400 x 360 resolution. We review lots of phones, and going from a 4.3- or 3.5-inch screen to a 2.7-inch screen is a big hit on screen real estate. With it, you get less room, but it suits the form factor. Normally, we'd complain about such a low resolution on a smart phone, but on a screen this small, the text and pictures aren't pixilated. While browsing the web, the Style's text looked clear and pictures had vibrant colors.
Click to enlargeThe Style runs BlackBerry 6 software, which includes several enhancements versus the previous version of the OS. For instance, you get multiple home screens that you can easily customize, universal search for finding everything from e-mails to apps, and a new notification window that makes it easy to see messages and calendar entries at a glance. There's also a nifty social feeds app that aggregates Facebook and Twitter updates.
The BlackBerry Torch was the first BB to run the OS, but that interface showed what you could do with a touch screen and a trackpad. Here it's all about the touchpad, and we're happy to report that it works really well. Using the trackpad to navigate through multiple home pages was smooth, and while we still think BlackBerry 6 looks a little aged with its many icons and menus, this is the best interface we've used on a non-touchscreen BlackBerry.
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Specs and Performance
While the BlackBerry Style has a slower processor than the Torch (528 MHz vs. 624 MHz processor), the Style actually delivered snappier performance in our testing. While both the Style and the Torch have 512MB of RAM, the touch interface seems to add lag to the latter device. The Style comes with an 8GB microSD card for media storage.
E-mail and Messaging
Like most BlackBerry devices, the BlackBerry Style delivers as a messaging and e-mail device. You can use up to 10 business and e-mail accounts with the phone and it supports BlackBerry Enterprise Server, which many businesses use. The Style also has BlackBerry Messenger for people who exclusively use BlackBerry devices. One thorn in this bed of roses is the Microsoft Exchange support for consumers--the service does not sync calendars, contacts, notes, or tasks from Exchange.
Click to enlargeThe WebKit-based browser on the BlackBerry Style certainly looks better than what BlackBerry users are used to, complete with support for tabbed browsing. However, mobile sites look a lot better on this small display, as full sites like Laptopmag.com look cut off. Using Sprint 3G, The New York Times mobile site loaded in 10 seconds, ESPN's mobile site in 9 seconds, CNN's mobile site in 14 seconds. All of these speeds are tolerable but slower than what you'll find on Android devices. We gave up loading Laptopmag.com over 3G after a minute. Using Wi-Fi, New York Times, CNN, and ESPN mobile sits averaged 8 seconds a piece, while Laptop loaded in 35 seconds.
The BlackBerry Style comes pre-loaded with lots of handy apps and app shortcuts. For entertainment, Slacker Radio (see gallery for Slacker Radio screenshot) and YouTube apps are onboard. For staying on top of your social networks, the phone comes pre-loaded with Facebook, Myspace, and Twitter apps (see gallery for Twitter screenshot). For professional needs, there is DataViz Documents to Go for working with e-mail attachments. There are also shortcuts to download the NASCAR Sprint Cup Mobile, Sprint Music Store, Sprint Navigation, and Sprint TV.
Downloading new apps is another story. When it comes to app selection and an excited developer base, the BlackBerry platform is still lacking. BlackBerry App World only has 10,000 or so apps, while the Android Market just crossed the 100,000 mark and Apple's App Store is now over the 300,000 level.
Multimedia and Camera
The camera on the Style is generally satisfying. It appears to have the same 5-megapixel sensor that the BlackBerry Torch has. The sensor has LED flash, auto focus, and image stabilization. On an outdoor photo of flowers during a cloudy day, colors were vibrant and details came out clearly.
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Videos on the Style record at VGA 640 x 480 resolution, and the clips looked pretty smooth. Our only complaint is that the phone had trouble transitioning from light to darker areas and vice versa. On the plus side, there is a handy option to upload a video directly to YouTube. All you do is put your YouTube credentials in and your video goes straight on the site. At the $99 level, this is still a solid offering.
Maps and GPS
The GPS inside the Style locked in quickly while using the BlackBerry Maps and Foursquare applications. BlackBerry Maps, however, runs slowly and doesn't have the depth of Google Maps. We'd recommend using Google Maps for browsing. For turn-by-turn navigation, there's the Sprint Navigation app, which costs $9.99 a month.
Call Quality and Battery LifeClick to enlarge
Call quality on the Style was above average over Sprint's 3G network. Voices through the earpiece were full but a little computer-y sounding. People on the other end said we sounded clear but somewhat tinny.
The 1150 mAh battery is rated for 4.5 hours of talk time and 10.5 days of standby time, both of which are lower than usual for BlackBerry devices. Still, power management on the Style was good enough for us to last more than a day on a single charge. Starting at 8 a.m. with a fair mix of talking, web surfing, and streaming Slacker Radio, the phone had a little less than a quarter of battery left at 8 p.m. that evening. The device can last a while with on standby mode, but we'd recommend charging it each night.
The BlackBerry Style costs $99 with a two-year contract. In this price range, the Style stands up well to other handsets on Sprint's network. The $99 Samsung Intercept doesn't have the best design, but it offers a lot more apps through the Android Market and a slide-out keyboard. The Sanyo Zio is also $99, but that Android phone is slow and doesn't have a physical keyboard. If you spend $50 more, you can get the Samsung Transform, an Android phone with a good keyboard but not the best performance.
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It's not really fair to compare the Style to high-end 4G phones that carry an extra $10 in data charges per month, but we do like the $199 HTC Evo 4G and $249 Samsung Epic 4G generally more than any BlackBerry we've seen recently. The Evo and Epic both offer fast Internet speeds, 720p video recording, and great overall performance.
If you like the clamshell design and you want a messaging phone that can do more, the Style is a solid choice for $99. With its relatively snappy performance and a good camera, this device is one of the best mid-range offerings on Sprint. In fact, in some ways the Style is more satisfying than the $199 Torch on AT&T because you don't have to contend with a sluggish touch interface. If you're willing to deal with a relatively small internal display, this compact BlackBerry is a pretty good bargain.