With users rushing to denounce BlackBerry and announce they'll leave the platform, RIM really needs to pull a belter out of the bag to put the horrors of 2011 behind it.
Which is where the BlackBerry Curve 9360 comes in. The range has long been one of BlackBerry's most popular - affordable, but not cheap; sleek, but not too flash. And the bestselling Curve 9300 has now been updated to give even more bang for the buck. 3G, GPS, NFC, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and, of course, BBM are all here and accounted for.
The first thing you notice is just how thin this smartphone is. The Curve 9360 feels almost like it's not completely finished, as though you're holding a dummy unit in a shop. It's only 11mm thick, and light as a feather at 99g. It also has precise edges - not enough to cut you, but it certainly gives that impression.
Made of a combination of brushed metal and black plastic, this is one good-looking handset, and measuring just 109 x 60mm, it's a great size.
Up top you have the standard 3.5mm headphone jack and a lock button that's not touch sensitive, although we did wonder about this, since you don't actually press it in far enough to be noticeable to lock and unlock the screen.
The left-hand side has the micro USB charging/syncing port, while the right has both a volume rocker (with middle shortcut button) and convenience key. It's typical BlackBerry fare.
The back houses the 5MP camera lens on one side, while the LED light for taking snaps is at the other end. We missed having a flash on the Curve 9300, so it's really good to see it back here.
The battery door is made of a high gloss plastic that looks like it'll scratch to high heaven given half a chance, and rests just above the speaker.
This battery cover's not easy to get off - and that's being kind. In the absence of an instruction manual with our review unit, we sat there patiently trying to get it off for what felt like an eternity, and could find no obvious way to do it. We eventually had to force it open and closed just to get a SIM and MicroSD card inside.
Around the front, you'll find the compact QWERTY keyboard, optical track pad and four BlackBerry shortcut keys. They appear to be fused to the bottom of the screen but they're not touch-sensitive and give a nice, satisfying click as you push them in.
The screen itself has a 480 x 360 resolution and really looks like a quality display. RIM hasn't cut corners here.
Within the BlackBerry range, the Curve 9360 will be mainly competing against its predecessor, the 9300 3G. And the Curve 9360 is also due to be released in white on the Orange network soon, so prepare for a little sibling rivalry there too.
Looking further afield, we'd pit it against the Samsung Galaxy S rather than the Galaxy S2, or against the Apple iPhone 3GS rather than the iPhone 4S in terms of what you're getting for your money. But it's an uneasy comparison, because both the Samsung Galaxy S and iPhone 3GS have touch screens, whereas the BlackBerry 9360 does not.
It's aimed squarely at those who are either on a budget and want a BlackBerry but without the size/price tag of the excellent Bold 9900, or those who are slightly younger. This is a model we can see in the clutches of many a teenager over the next few months, and with its reasonable price tag - £280 SIM-free or free on a £25 per month contract - it's likely to fit that mould perfectly.
The BlackBerry Curve 9360 has an immediate advantage over its predecessor in that it runs BlackBerry OS 7 - as do all of the RIM crops that have just been released from harvest.
Cosmetically, OS 7 takes its cues from the BlackBerry PlayBook and OS 6. Gone is the standard blue-and-white grid format that we got in OS 5 and, to a certain extent, saw an updated version of in OS 6.
The icons on OS 7 are all very much individual. In fact, it looks like a little bit of a mishmash, and we couldn't help thinking of the busy look that OS 4 provided when you had the app drawer open in the old days.
There's no kind of uniformity here and, while we're big fans of the clarity of icons, we have to admit that we think this is where it all looks a bit cheap.
OS 7 was promised as a faster operating system. And to be fair to RIM, it has delivered on this. That's because this baby whizzes along, leading you to believe that there's more in there than just an 800MHz processor.
It's been upped from the 624MHz found under the hood of the Curve 9300 and between that and the improved operating system, there were very few occasions where it ground to a halt. It did happen occasionally - but only in circumstances where we had lots of apps open. We admit, we were impressed.
As before, you have numerous app drawers you can swipe through (favourites, recent, downloaded and so on), although you can now manage which ones you want to see via the menu. We found these drawers to be a bit pointless and distracting on our Bold 9780, so are glad this option is here.
As before, you can search anywhere in the phone using the keyboard, which is kind of like smart dialling, but searches through more than just your phone book.
Or, if you're feeling particularly lazy, just use your own dulcet tones. The new operating system - and therefore the BlackBerry Curve 9360 - comes with voice-search included. RIM probably thought it had something great here - but has unfortunately been massively usurped by Apple's Siri.
It's not that the BlackBerry Curve 9360 implementation is bad - far from it. It matched our voice relatively well and brought up various search options. But it is, in no way, a 'virtual personal assistant' and had it not been for Siri bringing that to the masses, it wouldn't have mattered. But it has - and you notice.
The other thing we're not massively enamoured with is that voice searching should be just that: vocally-driven. By this, we mean so you don't have to touch your phone.
But you do on the BlackBerry Curve 9360, because you have to press a button when you're finished talking to let the phone know, and then you have to press another button to choose what it is you want to search (whether it's your phone book, the web or something else).
It renders it all a bit pointless, and you can't help feeling that RIM just hasn't thought this through.
Contacts and calling
We weren't expecting this element of the BlackBerry Curve 9360's operating system to be radically different, and we're not disappointed, because it isn't different in any way, shape or form to the offering on the BlackBerry Bold 9900. In fact, it's almost identical to the way contacts appear on OS 6, too.
We went through every single option in there, and did so on our OS 6-running 9780, and not one single option has changed - as far as we can see.
Again, that's not to say that the offering here is bad, because it definitely isn't. BlackBerry's contacts handling system on the Curve 9360 is as top-notch as it always has been - albeit a little boring, cosmetically.
Getting names and numbers on the phone is a piece of cake. You're spoilt for choice really, with BES/BIS, Google Contacts integration or just plain, old-fashioned PC/Mac syncing. It all works, and thousands of contacts will take seconds to populate.
Contacts are listed with thumbnails. If you have a photo of the person, it looks great. If, like us, some have pictures and some don't, then you'll just have what looks like an untidy phonebook with lots of missing images in your list.
Within a contact field, you can put any bit of information you require, ranging from date of birth to anniversaries, address, phone, email details plus custom information if you want to keep a note of their dog's name.
For a novice, it may all be a little too much. Yes, it's great that RIM provides us with so much customisation potential. Yet we're still yet to meet anybody who'll fill in all of those details for all of their contacts.
Calling a person is easy, though - just type their name in from the home screen and smart dialling kicks in, or do it via the contacts app. You can also add shortcuts to people to dial on your home screen, a feature that our iOS-loving friends still miss out on.
During a call you get the usual options such as hold, add participant and so on. There's nothing new here. And the call quality is, as you'd expect from BlackBerry, pretty good. It's clear as a bell, loud on both speaker and handset modes, and there's even the option to increase bass.
The BlackBerry Curve 9360 can hold onto a signal and that is, of course, one of the basics that a manufacturer should always get right.
Alas, despite this being a 3G phone, if you're looking for any form of video calling on the BlackBerry Curve 9360, forget it.
But you can be sociable in other ways - both Twitter and Facebook are supported and come preinstalled with the latest and greatest versions - both of which have been updated for OS 7. Facebook statuses are ingrained into a contact's card, but there's no really deep integration of the type we see on Windows Phone 7 handsets or certain Android offerings, which is a shame.
Chances are, if you're grabbing a BlackBerry, you're doing it because you're big on messaging, rather than just phone calls. And it's all in here: every option you could shake a stick at.
Firstly, email. Be it BIS or BES, you're home and dry with the BlackBerry Curve 9360, which operates as most BlackBerries do when it comes to messaging: brilliantly (we'll skim over the events of October here.)
You can customise how you want it to look and have your emails separate from BlackBerry Messenger (BBM) or from your SMS, or throw the whole lot together into a consolidated inbox. Heck, Twitter and Facebook messages will join in the party too if you want them!
It's not any different to what we've seen before, but once again everything just seems to work. And you can add as many third party solutions as you want, from Windows Live Messenger to WhatsApp and Google Talk.
BBM is one of the big selling points here: secure, encrypted instant messaging that enables you to keep in touch a lot easier (and cheaper) than SMS, which is why it's so popular with younger folk.
RIM knows how much of a deal-breaker BBM is, which is why it's recently been looking at porting the software over to Android too. For now though, it's BlackBerry-only, and with the BlackBerry Curve 9360 - and the likelihood of it being popular with youngsters - it's one of this handset's biggest draws.
Typing on the BlackBerry Curve 9360 is an easy enough affair. The physical keyboard lacks the size of the Bold 9900 and is of the typical Curve variety, which is more spaced out and clicks a lot more. BlackBerries first got their name because the keys looked like the seeds from the BlackBerry fruit.
And here, that's more apparent than ever. Big shovels of hands may have issues with the small keys, but for the majority of us it's perfectly usable.
BlackBerry's own Social Feeds app is also present, although we still don't get why you'd want to use this. It's not separate software - it just takes you into the relevant app when you click on anything. Still, at least you can ignore it if you want (which is what we did.)
We can still remember our first BlackBerry Curve, the 8310. It was a lovely piece of kit for its day, but when it came to that web browser, we wanted to scratch our eyes out with a fork. Pages took a day and a half to load and then never looked anything like they were meant to.
The 8900 made some improvements, but it was only when OS 6 came along and the new WebKit-enabled browser took over that we could actually consider browsing properly for more than a couple of seconds. And now, on the BlackBerry Curve 9360 and OS 7, you really feel that the web browser has come of age.
Don't get us wrong, we're not saying it's brilliant or the match for Android or the iPhone, because it's not. But it's definitely usable. If you have time on your side, that is. Loading pages does take a little while, because that 800MHz processor still has to work like a Blackpool donkey to render even the simplest web pages.
The TechRadar homepage took a staggering 27 seconds to load, and that was over Wi-Fi. We're talking from the second we pressed return on the address bar until the last vestige of that loading line had left our screen. We could actually start reading the page at about 13 seconds in, so all was not lost, but it's still ridiculously slow.
And over 3G, it was even longer - taking the best part of 46 seconds to fully load the same page.
Other pages took comparable times, and although we bemoan this, it wasn't so bad that we wanted to throw the BlackBerry Curve 9360 out of the window as we have with some other handsets in the past.
The likelihood is that if you're serious about web browsing, you'll probably go for the Bold 9900 and all its touchscreen wizardry (or alternative phone altogether), but for a bit of light surfing, the Curve 9360 will suffice.
And at least the resolution pulls a few points back onto the score too, because that screen does look fantastic with web pages loaded on it. The clarity is great and you can't easily spot pixels as you often can with some cheaper handsets.
RIM has updated how bookmarks work, so instead of getting them in a list format, you get little thumbnails of all of your sites. The same goes for your history.
Predictably, there is no Flash capability. We moan about this every time, and gave the Bold 9900 hell for this omission. We didn't really expect RIM to have included it here on a junior handset, and even if it had, if the BlackBerry Curve 9360 struggles to get normal pages up in a decent time, we shudder to think how that processor would cope with Flash elements.
For the first time in our life, we'll probably say here that it is just as well that Flash has been left out.
The BlackBerry Curve 9360 has a much-improved camera than the one found on its predecessor. Gone is the 2MP unit and in its place is a 5MP offering, which is pretty average for what's about at the moment and certainly by no means inferior.
RIM has also given us a flash, which is something we couldn't believe it left out on the Curve 9300. We can't understand why some phones still don't come with any kind of illumination these days. Not having one makes taking pictures such a boring experience.
When Apple recently launched the iPhone 4S and upped the camera to 8MP, it said that would probably be the best compact camera some people owned.
Now we're in a situation where the camera on a phone could be the primary snapper - without having to worry about a DSLR or high-end compact camera.
It's a shame RIM hasn't got the same ethos here, though. Befitting the Curve's position below the Bold 9900 (which itself didn't set the world alight with its 5MP camera), the lens on the Curve 9360 isn't bad.
But it is average, and you realise that you won't be taking this out in place of a camera when you plan on taking lots of snaps because, quite frankly, it's not up to the job of anything other than the odd piccy to send via MMS or email.
The BlackBerry Curve 9360 has all manner of scene modes, including face detection. Heck, it's even got image stabilisation (although it's turned off by default).
But what it doesn't have is an autofocus. This camera's focus is fixed all the way, which meant that when we tried to take photos, there was no mucking about, it just took what was there in front of it. And almost every photo we took ended up slightly blurred.
The image stabilisation really is rubbish, because we stood stiller than a corpse when we took our shots but it wasn't enough. In fact, bizarrely, photos taken in darkness with the flash on were the only ones that were really worth anything.
The camera is most definitely not the BlackBerry Curve 9360's strong point. We remember the Bold 9900 having struggles with its autofocus, and really hope this doesn't mean BlackBerry is giving up on its cameras.
FLASH: The photo light works brilliantly. Photos actually look better when taken with it on
When we reviewed the current Daddy of the BlackBerry range, the Bold 9900, we were disappointed with the 5MP camera (the same offering as we have on the Curve 9360, albeit with a couple more options) but it redeemed itself to a certain extent with the fact that it can shoot HD video.
Sadly, if you want to shoot HD video on a BlackBerry, you'll have to go premium, because you can't do it with the Curve 9360. Video is restricted to a measly maximum resolution of 640 x 480, which is what we had in years gone by with another mode for shooting smaller MMS-friendly files.
Yet that's not to say that quality is bad, because it's actually not at all. Videos suit the screen size perfectly so you don't feel like you're really missing anything by being able to shoot in just SD.
And even when they're transferred to your computer, they're not bad. They're not brilliant, but they're more than adequate.
There are various scene modes included just like in the camera app - although there are fewer of them - and image stabilisation rears its head here again but, also again, we couldn't see what it offered.
There is a video light but annoyingly, you have to decide if you want to have it on or off before you start shooting your video, which is irritating - especially if you're moving around between light and dark or maybe shooting in twilight.
You have to stop recording to toggle it on and off, which can ruin videos, and annoyingly there is what looks like an icon at the bottom of the screen for you to click on to turn the light on and off.
Unfortunately, this is just a notifier, signalling if your light is on or off (like you wouldn't be able to tell by looking at the back of the phone) and is a waste of screen real estate. It's annoying and shows that RIM hasn't really thought this whole bit of the OS through. Most people won't notice or mind, but we did, and it irked us.
Media is one of the feathers RIM has in its virtual cap, and one that is often overlooked by people looking to buy a multimedia smartphone.
Although BlackBerries are primarily messaging devices and that's what buyers associate them with, in recent years RIM has upped its media capabilities. We assume this is in response to the iPhone, and with RIM trying to target the teen market, this becomes ripe fighting ground.
It's especially true of the BlackBerry Curve range now these affordable smartphones are being pitched towards the younger users as well as others.
We love the fact that RIM no longer provides us with just a bog standard music player, but has dedicated sections such as a podcast area that even enables you to search and subscribe directly from your handset.
Amazon MP3 is built in directly, and it provides a credible alternative to the iTunes store. In fact, in some ways it's better, because it includes things you wouldn't necessarily find on iTunes (we even dug out the old Red Dwarf theme tune and used it as a ring tone - sad, eh?).
Music is purchased and downloaded and you can sync it straight back to your PC or Mac using the excellent software that RIM provides, which even syncs iTunes playlists perfectly (that's no mean feat - just ask Android smartphone users).
There's no FM radio, sadly, although RIM has never included an FM radio on its mobile phones, so it's hardly a surprise. We used the TuneIn Radio app for our radio needs.
The loudspeaker is just that - LOUD. There's no hint of tinniness, and although bass is a little on the meagre side, it's not enough to notice when you play music through the back. It does muffle if you put the BlackBerry Curve 9360 down on a soft surface, but that's hardly anything to be concerned about.
We can see a lot of bus passengers getting angry with school kids when they start piping out various tunes to each other on this handset. Oh dear.
Videos are kept in their own sections, as are music and photos, and you're even given options to search BlackBerry AppWorld for apps that will work with them. It's all really well integrated, and we're sold on this.
We can confidently say that, media-wise at least, we think the BlackBerry Curve 9360 is a worthy (and cheaper) competitor to the iPhone, even if it falls down in certain other comparable aspects.
Watching video is adequate. The BlackBerry Curve 9360 doesn't struggle to play clips, but you won't really want to watch all 200 seasons of The Wire on it unless you're pint-sized, because you'll be squinting your way to the opticians.
For watching a couple of YouTube clips or even a short episode of something on the train, though, it's more than capable.
Make sure you invest in a memory card, because you won't be able to fit much on the 512MB available out of the box.
Battery life and connectivity
Now here's what's really odd. RIM's handsets seem to be getting more and more adventurous. But bucking the trend set by other manufacturers, its batteries are getting smaller and smaller.
The Bold 9780 gave users a good old 1500mAh power pack, but the hootin' tootin' Bold 9900 maxes out at a meagre 1230mAh. Similarly, the Curve 9300 battery was 1150mAh, and now the BlackBerry Curve 9360 is even smaller, at just 1000mAh. That has to be one of the smallest batteries we've seen in years.
RIM has presumably taken this step for two reasons: firstly, because it wants to keep the Curve 9360's dimensions down to make it appear sexier, and secondly, because OS 7 is just better at managing power - especially with a handset where the processor maxes out at 800MHz.
But really, guys? 1000mAh? Are you mad?
To be fair to RIM, it will get you through a day - but you'll have to be sensible. We hate to break it to you that the era of BlackBerries having the best battery lives out there is long gone now. A BlackBerry in 2011 is no better than any other average smartphone when it comes to battery life.
We took our review unit off charge at 7am and spent an hour catching up with emails, Tweets, Facebook messages and browsing the web. At about 10am, we went for a 10 mile run using the Adidas MiCoach app and listening to the radio streaming through TuneIn.
Over the course of the afternoon, we played Jamie Woon's album from start to finish (streaming it over Bluetooth to our stereo), made about 40 minutes worth of calls and sent about 30 emails. We also sent the odd text message. We managed to eke out the power until just after 7pm, when the handset shut down the radio and told us it was off to bed.
We class that as pretty intense usage, so if you're more of an average punter, you'll easily make it through until bedtime.
Connectivity-wise, GPS (with A-GPS), Bluetooth (with A2DP), HSDPA/HSUPA (plus EDGE if you really want to go retro) and Wi-Fi are all there.
NFC is also here. First introduced in the Bold 9900 and still as useless as a chocolate teapot until the technology gets major buy in, we're really shocked to see it here.
Not because it shouldn't be, but because this is a cheaper, more cheerful handset than the premium Bold 9900 so we wouldn't expect treats like that to find their way onto the spec sheet.
Still, it just goes to show how much RIM thinks NFC will be part of our lives in the months and years to come - and will probably come into its own if the Curve 9360 and BlackBerry Tag become as popular as RIM hopes.
Maps and apps
A plea, now addressed to RIM: Please, please, please put your BlackBerry Maps app to sleep. It's the kindest thing to do. Not just for you but for us, because every time we review a BlackBerry handset and find this piece of tat on there, it raises our heart rate.
This app is pointless and useless. Google Maps (and others) is far superior, but you just give us something so old that it looks like it's from the movie, War Games.
We urge users to just file this app in the bin, because it really is that pointless. A-GPS is on board to enable mapping and navigation apps to find your location, which helped us to get a lock in no time at all.
While we're at it, can we have some more games too? Please??!
Word-Mole and BrickBreaker were great back in 2008. But something else - maybe just one little platform game - would be lovely. Yes, we know we can download more via the AppWorld (for free up to the value of $100 for some lucky users, following the recent outage), but it would feel like you care if you could just refresh this.
In terms of other apps, there are a few new bits in there such as a new Smart Tags programme, which is related to the in-built NFC technology. This basically keeps a record of all the tags you've touched in recent times, meaning you can head back into that snazzy web link or see the picture you snared if you so wish.
There's also BlackBerry Protect to help keep your data secure - remember, security has always been one of RIM's biggest selling points, so there's no surprise in it cashing in on this.
The App World is still hideously overpriced and under populated compared to offerings like those from Apple and Android.
However, don't forget there are other alternatives such as Handmark and GetJar, which have been around for years and have some titles at better prices. The common misconception of lots of phone users is that they're locked into one store. But you can shop around. And you probably should.
Hands on gallery
We have to say that we're really impressed with the BlackBerry Curve 9360. More so than the Bold 9900, in fact.
Here's why: for years, Curve users had to compromise on features.
The first Curve we owned, the 8310, had GPS but no Wi-Fi. There was a version that had Wi-Fi, but no GPS, and nothing in between. Annoying, much.
The Curve 8900 came along but, although it was sleeker than the Bold 9000 and had Wi-Fi, it didn't have 3G, which meant download speeds were really bad.
More recently the Curve 9300 was bestowed upon us, and had a camera but no flash. It's like RIM had deliberately chosen to leave one key feature off so that Bold users had something to boast about.
This is the first time we've really felt that a Curve device has been given all the bells and whistles of more premium handsets, and we think the Curve 9360 will be a best seller for RIM. If it is, it's well deserved.
The BlackBerry Curve 9360 is a great size and really feels like a complete package. The addition of 3G as well as a 5MP camera, Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, GPS and NFC makes you feel like you have it all in your pocket.
The screen is sharp and the media capabilities are spot on. Oh, and there's messaging, which is, of course, BlackBerry's forte.
The browser could be quicker, but we guess that's down to the meagre 800MHz processor that powers this thing. The voice searching is a bit of a pointless addition, and while the camera will suffice for shooting drunk snaps of your buddies, it won't be replacing any other cameras any time soon.
We're also not overly impressed by the reduction in battery size.
We think it says it all that when writing the pros and cons, we were overloaded with pros and struggled to think of cons to list. Yes, the BlackBerry Curve 9360 is a budget device compared to the premium Bold 9900, but we can't help thinking that considering the cost of it, it's actually a million times better value for money.
It's still not all there. RIM could have fitted it with a quicker processor and larger battery, but then that would take this into the premium league and would negate the whole point of having more expensive handsets - although other manufacturers seem to manage to do it.
Having said that, you'd be forgiven for thinking this is a premium handset, and we wholeheartedly recommend you consider this if you're looking for a half-decent messaging device.
The fact of the matter is that RIM really needs something to help it out right now following the debacle of the last few weeks. Something that will get it back up there as a credible name. And in our view, the BlackBerry Curve 9360 is most definitely going to help it along the way.