Refined? Yes. Exciting? Not so much. With the BlackBerry Curve 8530 ($99.99 through Verizon Wireless with two-year contract), RIM has tweaked one of the top-selling smart phones over the last year and a half. Like the older Curve 8330, you still get a spacious keyboard, long battery life, reliable push e-mail, and a pocket-friendly design. But the 8530 adds such welcome enhancements as Wi-Fi, an optical trackpad, and a zippier processor (no more spinning hourglass). On the other hand, the 8530 lacks the sleeker interface of the identically priced HTC Droid Eris, and it brings up the rear when it comes to Web surfing.
Is this sleek successor worth the upgrade, or should you step up to the classier BlackBerry Tour? And how does the new Curve stack up to Verizon's Android devices?
Design and Keyboard
The Curve 8530 definitely looks more modern than its predecessor. Decked out in a glossy black plastic case (also available in violet), this smart phone has a streamlined aesthetic. We especially like the rubberized soft-touch finish on the top, sides, and part of the back, which makes the 8530 easy to grip. RIM also integrated media controls on the top of the device so you can change tracks or pause playback at any time.
On the front you'll notice the biggest change compared to the 8330: an optical trackpad that replaces the trackball. This addition took some getting used to, but in general navigating menus was simple, and we like that there's no risk of lint mucking up the works. Flanking the trackpad are four buttons (Back, Call, End/Power, and Menu) that are flush with the device. These buttons were responsive but feel a bit cheap compared to the cushier ones found on the Tour.
Weighing 3.7 ounces and measuring 0.6 inches thin, the 8530 definitely feels lighter than the 4.6-ounce Tour, and is even lighter than the older 4.0-ounce Curve 8330. However, the Tour feels more substantial (in a good way) and luxurious overall, complete with a metallic border. We also couldn't help but notice that the keyboard backlight and display were dimmer on the Curve 8530 than the Tour.
Speaking of the keyboard, the 8530's layout is very similar to that of the 8330. We still appreciate the generous amount of space between keys here, even if the keys themselves felt a bit stiff and were loud. Some may prefer the cushier, quieter layout on the pricier Tour, but its keys are also closer together.
Click to enlarge
Display and User Interface
Like its predecessor, the 8530 features a 2.5-inch display with 320 x 240 pixels, but the interface eschews the 8330's colorful menu icons for RIM's minimalist line-drawing icons. Some people like it, but we're not fans of this approach because it's often difficult to tell at a glance what's what on the menu screen. We're also not sure why there are separate options for things like Downloads and Applications. The BlackBerry OS needs a new makeover.
The Tour has the same confusing UI, but at least it has a brighter display with a higher resolution (480 x 360), which makes text more crisp and fits more info and images on the screen at once.
Specs and Performance
Click to enlargeCurve 8330 owners who were frustrated by its sometimes sluggish performance will be pleased by the faster 8530. Instead of a 312-MHz processor, you now have a 528-MHz Qualcomm CPU, which never stuttered as we opened and closed multiple apps and jumped in and out of our inbox. Because the BlackBerry OS was built for multitasking, having this extra pep is welcome. For example, we didn't notice any latency when attempting to browse the Web while streaming music from Pandora. You also get 256MB of flash memory, up from only 96MB, so you'll have a lot more room for storing applications. The microSD slot supports cards up to 16GB in capacity, and unlike the 8330 it's located next to (instead of behind) the battery for easier access.
E-mail and Messaging
The 8530 continues RIM's tradition of fast and reliable push e-mail delivery, and we set up our work account in under two minutes. The latest BlackBerry OS (v. 5.0) supports threaded e-mail, so it's easy to keep track of conversations. This device supports up to 11 e-mail addresses when using the BlackBerry Internet service, including 10 Web mail accounts and one BlackBerry account. Thanks to the inclusion of DataViz Documents To Go, you can easily view Office attachments. Instant messaging options include AIM, BlackBerry Messenger, Google Talk, and Yahoo Messenger.
Web Browsing and Apps
To put it kindly, Web surfing on the 8530 feels like torture. Like the 8520, this smart phone uses RIM's latest browser, but it wasn't designed for low-resolution screens. The result is text that's fuzzy and pages you have to zoom in on just to read headlines. You can make browsing more tolerable by changing the default view from Page to Column (so you'll only have to scroll up and down) or by changing the Browser Identification setting from Firefox to BlackBerry mode in the options menu (so that most sites display only their mobile versions).
In terms of speed, the 8530 was only slightly slower than the Tour. The device loaded Web sites for CNN, ESPN, and The New York Times in 22 seconds (vs. 20), 28 seconds (vs. 22), and 23 (vs. 22), respectively. Toggling on Wi-Fi helped, but not much.
BlackBerry App World continues to chug along with no easy option for downloading paid apps; you still need to set up a PayPal account. When is carrier billing coming? In the meantime, there is a fair number of compelling apps among the 3000+ options, ranging from the new Seesmic Twitter app and Pandora's free Internet radio to gwabbit for e-mail contact capture.
Multimedia and Camera
The BlackBerry Curve line has never been known for its multimedia prowess, and the 8530 doesn't do much to change that perception. However, the BlackBerry Media Sync software makes it pretty easy to sync both (unprotected) iTunes and Windows Media Player music--as well as photos--with this device. We also like the dedicated media keys on top of the phone, which even worked with the Pandora app; we could pause playback and skip tracks while we were checking our inbox. Sound quality was loud both through the internal speaker and headphones plugged into the 8530's 3.5mm jack, but the speaker sounded more tinny.
Access to V CAST Videos is included with the 8530's $29.99 data plan, but you'll need to pay for V CAST Music with Rhapsody ($1.99 per track or $15 per month). When we streamed an episode of Family Guy, the picture quality was surprisingly good at full screen. An ABC News Now update also looked smooth at first, but then devolved into a mess of pixels.
Don't expect much from the 8530's camera. It's the same resolution as its predecessor, but it loses the flash. We much prefer the crisp detail, autofocus capability, and LED flash offered by the BlackBerry Tour.
Maps and GPS
Click to enlargeLike most BlackBerry smart phones, the 8530 comes with VZ Navigator for turn-by-turn spoken directions. The app did a good job of navigating us to a friend's house in southern New Jersey, and it quickly recalculated our route when we took a brief detour. We also appreciated the loud speaker volume. The bundled Maps application pales in comparison to what you'll find on Android devices and the iPhone; it was slow to find our location in downtown Manhattan, and was not nearly as intuitive. You're much better off downloading Google Maps.
Call Quality and Battery Life
To test the Curve 8530's call quality, we dialed the same landline twice from the same location, once with the 8530 and then with the Tour. The message we left with the 8530 picked up more background noise and sounded a bit more fuzzy than the Tour, but reception on our end was good. Volume on our end was also improved in comparison to the original Curve 8330.
The Curve 8530 has the same size battery as it predecessor and is rated for up to 4.5 hours of talk time. With light usage we saw three days of battery life, and nearly twelve hours of endurance with moderate to heavy usage (Web surfing, music streaming).
The BlackBerry Curve 8530 is a good smart phone for work and play. The identically priced Droid Eris will be a more compelling device for many because of its better Web browser, larger screen, customizable touch interface, and larger selection of apps. But the 8530 has a better keyboard and offers a superior e-mail experience. Even without Wi-Fi we prefer the BlackBerry Tour because of its sturdier, sexier design and sharper camera (with flash), making it worth the $50 premium over the 8530. Nevertheless, the Curve 8530 is a solid choice for smart phone shoppers on a tight budget.