After playing it cool for a few years, RIM has apparently decided that there's something to this touchscreen phone lark after all, releasing a budget all-touch device in the shape of the BlackBerry Curve 9380.
Now it's the Curve family's turn, even though we thought it was doing fine without touch in our BlackBerry Curve 9360 review. Instead of taking the Bold route and adding touch capability to the screen above the keyboard, RIM has been somewhat more aggressive with the BlackBerry Curve 9380.
The keyboard's gone completely, in favour of a 3.2-inch 360 x 480 touchscreen. This puts it far closer to the Torch 9860 than its Curve brethren on the outside, although it's rather more like the Curve 9360 when it comes to the internals.
Instead of the Torch's nippy 1.2GHz processor, the Curve 9380 ticks along at 806MHz, though there's a reasonable 512MB of RAM for multitasking. These power the new BlackBerry OS 7, as seen on all the latest handsets from RIM, and also featuring on the Bold 9790.
In its other internals, the BlackBerry Curve 9380 is very similar to the Curve 9360 (erm, do your best to keep up with the numbers, though nobody will blame you for getting a little confused). There's a 5MP camera with VGA video recording and an LED flash, Wi-Fi, GPS support, Bluetooth 2.1, microSD card support and NFC built in.
It's even essentially the same size and weight as the Curve 9360: 109 x 60 x 11.2mm and 98g - a total difference of 0.2 mm in depth and 1g in weight.
The Curve 9380 feels really light in the hand compared to the 150+g smartphones that are becoming the norm, but it doesn't feel cheap. Yes, it feels like plastic, but there's little give, and we'd trust it to survive a few drops.
From the front, the BlackBerry Curve 9380 resembles a smaller version of the Torch 9860, with the same glossy black front and silver edging. The Call, Menu, Back and End buttons at the bottom are part of the main plastic fascia, though, unlike the separate buttons of the Torch 9860.
This is, frankly, a mistake. They're much harder to press, and needlessly so. We know RIM loves its buttons, but it could have kept the same sleek look but made them far easier to hit by using touch-sensitive buttons. The optical trackpad has no such issues, however.
The BlackBerry Curve 9380's screen is nice and bright, with nice natural colours and excellent viewing angles. It is, however quite low resolution. It's actually got the same number of pixels as the Curve 9360's screen, but that was only 2.88 inches, compared to 3.2 inches here.
It's less than half the resolution of the Torch 9860, and is lower than the Torch 9810, which also has a 3.2-inch screen. The result is that icons and text are often noticeably pixelated, which makes for a less pleasant experience in the browser and apps like Twitter. It's still readable, of course, but just makes for a more underwhelming experience.
On the right-hand side of the BlackBerry Curve 9380 is the volume rocker with mute key, and the Convenience key.
Because of the small size of the Curve, we found the Convenience key to be slightly too far down, and a little stiff. Pressing it one-handed actually caused the phone to slip out of our grasp a couple of times. We'd prefer if it were slightly further up.
On the left side is the micro USB port, while the top houses a big Lock key built into the curved fascia and the 3.5mm headphone jack.
The rear is mostly glossy black plastic, which picks up fingerprints and grease at an alarmingly quick rate. At the top are the camera lens and LED flash.
You remove the back plate by finding the tiny little dent near the micro USB port and popping the back off with a fingernail. From there, you can add your microSD card slot, or remove the battery, where you'll find the SIM card slot.
BlackBerry OS 7 is on board in the BlackBerry Curve 9380, with is iterative improvements from OS 6. It's friendlier and more colourful than the default interface of previous BlackBerry OS versions, and retains the larger focus on touch interaction that OS 6 introduced.
On the Home screen, this is manifested in numerous areas that can be interacted with. The status bar at the top can be tapped to open several quick settings, while below is a notifications area that you touch to open your full notifications list.
By tapping the speaker symbol in the top left, you can switch profiles quickly, while the magnifying glass brings up a screen that enables you to search the phone for certain terms, or send the terms to the browser for an internet search. You can also perform voice searches, although the speech recognition is rather hit and miss, and is a long way from the accuracy of Siri on the Apple iPhone 4S.
The app tray at the bottom of the Home screen can be pulled up to reveal one, two, three or three-and-a-bit rows of apps at a time, or hidden completely. You'll have to open it all the way to be able to scroll through all your apps, however.
This is all presented pretty much identically to the BlackBerry Torch 9860, except that the different dimensions of the screen mean that you can't fit the full fourth row of apps on, as you can on the 9860.
You can swipe left and right on the app trays to access different arrangement of apps, such as Frequent, Downloads, Media and Favourites.
Overall, it's a system that sits somewhere in the middle of Google's Android and Apple's iOS when it comes to intuitive simplicity and customisability, and we like it. The only shame is that there are no widgets for those who like the have the app trays closed - it's just wasted space at the moment.
Alas, despite our fondness for the touch-optimised Home screen, there are many aspects of the BlackBerry OS that haven't had such care. Many apps still use small lists in their interfaces that were clearly designed for use with the trackpad on non-touch devices, with entries that are too small for fingers to select.
There is a trackpad on the BlackBerry Curve 9380 to get around this problem, but having to switch between using touch controls and the trackpad to control a phone isn't what we'd call intuitive.
There are also still irritating niggles such as text boxes or password entry fields appearing without automatically bringing up the keyboard. They're not dealbreakers, but show a lack of polish compared to Android, iOS and Windows Phone 7 devices.
Though generally we found the BlackBerry Curve 9380's responsiveness across the operating system to be acceptable, if hardly super-zippy (which is to be expected for a lower-end phone, to a degree), we did find that it flaked out on us really badly at one point.
It became impossible for us to scroll through any lists or web pages without accidentally selecting things in them. It caused us to accidentally follow people on Twitter, it made it a nightmare to reflow text in the browser, and just browsing through our list of apps became a Herculean chore.
It persisted overnight, but a restart of the phone eventually sorted it out. Though it was undoubtedly an unusual incident, the fact that such a glitch made the phone nearly unusable just during our review period, let alone the two years you might have this phone on contract, is pretty unnerving.
And we have to finish with a final major problem - one that we picked up on in our Torch 9860 review but that persists here. In one app's password field, the autocorrect function is active, not only causing your passwords to go wrong if they aren't normal words, but also overriding the asterisks and revealing your password to the world until it's dismissed.
(Disclaimer: The above picture is from the Torch 9860, due to problems getting a screengrab on the Curve 9380, but the problem is identical.)
RIM is a company obsessed with security, so we're amazed that such an obvious security issue is allowed by the operating system.
Contacts and calling
RIM has been comfortable with its Contacts app for a while now, and that hasn't change in the BlackBerry Curve 9380. It's still the same simple list, although there's plenty of information you can add.
Email addresses, phone numbers, BBM information, custom ring tones and alerts, and all sorts of other information can be stored.
When you select a contact, you can see the stored information and tap on any of it. At the bottom are four shortcut keys: one to edit the contact, one to write an email, one to call and another to delete the entry. There's no shortcut to text - you have to dig the option out using the Menu key.
There's Facebook integration, but it's crushingly basic. Some information can be shared, but compared to the deep integration in Windows Phone 7 devices, such as the HTC Titan, it's barely worth bothering with. And there's none of the kind of interaction and activity panes that you get with HTC Sense phones, such as the HTC Sensation XL.
Though RIM has made huge strides in social network integration elsewhere in the operating systems, and in modernising BlackBerry devices for touch, the contacts list is well behind the competition.
Happily, though, RIM's usual excellent attention to signal quality is here. The Curve is excellent at picking up mobile networks, and getting good 3G connectivity.
Call quality is generally fine, and the earspeaker and loudspeaker are both loud and reasonably clear. It's not the highest quality by any means, but we found it easily good enough.
The Curve line of BlackBerry mobile phones has always been a great way to get a good range of messaging features on a budget, and the Curve 9380 is no different.
With email, BBM, instant messaging and social networks all built into the operating system, RIM has fashioned one of the most integrated messaging handsets around.
The Messaging app is the hub, bringing in emails, text messages, direct messages on Twitter and Facebook, and even app updates.
Messages are divided up by date, and then arranged by time. Unread messages have the text in bold and the icon in colour, but turn black and white once you've read the message.
Tapping on a message to read it takes you to the relevant app; Twitter, Facebook, Text Messages and so on. This, at least, is totally seamless and smooth. No waiting, no animation - you just go straight there without any fuss.
The BlackBerry Curve 9380's Text Messaging app uses speech bubbles, like pretty much every smartphone these days, with different colours for you and the other person.
You type a new message using the bar near the bottom, and there's a button for adding emoticons to messages. There are also five shortcuts. One brings up the keyboard, one sends a message, the next adds a new recipient, the next creates an MMS by attaching media, and the last takes you straight to the most recent unread message.
Emails come into the Messages app, and you can easily set up accounts in the Inbox Management part of the settings. There are presets for Yahoo!, Google, AOL and Windows Live, or you can specify settings with the Other option. Our Vodafone-locked review handset also enabled us to create a new email address, powered by Vodafone.
Text emails are reasonably easy to read, with the text a good size, if a little pixelated on the low-resolution screen. You have to turn on the images in anything more media-rich, but once you do it's easy enough to pinch to zoom and then pan around an email.
You've got all the email options you'd expect (forwarding, replying and so on), and from the Menu key you can apply labels, add stars, flag emails and more.
Writing emails is as simple as ever, with an interface familiar to BlackBerry users. Stick your recipients in the To field, your subject in the Subject field and the text at the bottom. Attachments and other options are available from the Menu key.
The Social Feeds app is like the Messages app, but for updates, rather that direct messages. It's all about the short-form, so you've got Twitter and Facebook updates wrapped up with the instant messaging options, including BBM, Google Talk, Windows Live Messenger and Yahoo! Messenger.
Twitter, Facebook and BBM are all integrated throughout the BlackBerry Curve 9380's operating system, with BBM integration particularly having had an increase in what you can easily share over it.
BBM has most notably had integration with the Wikitude augmented reality browser, which enables you to see BBM users near you and start chatting to them.
Will you find love, friendship or an axe murderer? It's the wheel of misfortune of internet chatting!
We lamented the poor quality of the touchscreen keyboard in our Torch 9860 review, and little has changed here. We find it too fiddly, but we will say it annoyed us slightly less on the BlackBerry Curve 9380 than the Torch 9860. We think it's because the screen is slightly smaller, believe it or not. It just felt slightly easier to peck at the letters near the edge, in particular.
However, because RIM has strictly kept the layout the same as it is on the BlackBerry handsets with physical keyboards, there's little customisation in the keyboard depending on the field you're in. When writing email addresses, for example, the @ symbol isn't made more prominent, and there's no equivalent to the '.com' key that iOS on the iPhone and most Android handsets have.
The long and short of it is that those who type a lot are probably better off with handsets from the other major players - Android, iOS and Windows Phone 7 - if they want an all-touch device.
The latest batch of BlackBerry phones, including the Torch 9860, Bold 9900 and Curve 9360 and the BlackBerry Curve 9380 here, feature a much-improved browser as part of BlackBerry OS 7.
It's faster than ever before, helped along with 802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi and HSDPA 3G mobile internet connectivity. The fact that the BlackBerry Curve 9380 picks up signal so well helps it keep good 3G speeds in particular.
We were pleasantly surprised to see that page loading speeds haven't really been affected by the reduction in horsepower from the higher-end OS 7 handsets. There's little speed difference from the Torch, and it's actually not that much slower than powerful handsets such as the iPhone 4S and HTC Sensation XE for many sites.
That's not to say the whole experience is rosy, sadly. The responsiveness is all over the place, for a start. Sometimes pinching to zoom responds fine, while at other times it's extremely slow and juddery, or the site suddenly disappears while it redraws and then reappears in a different place to where you were zooming.
Things like text reflow work well, and help to mitigate the blockiness of text on the 360 x 480 screen, but still tend to be a bit slow - you can double-tap on a column of text and end up waiting for a couple of seconds before everything catches up.
The browser has plenty of features, though. You can have several pages open and switch between them using a carousel at the top. It's not quite as slick as on the more powerful handsets, but it works well enough.
From the Menu key, you can search the page, bookmark a site, add the site to your Home screen and share the page in numerous ways, including BBM, email, Facebook and Twitter.
There's no Flash support, but that's probably a wise move considering the meagre power of the CPU.
Although the page loading speeds on the BlackBerry Curve 9380 are rather impressive, it's an extremely poor browsing experience overall, and the blame lies firmly with the serious touch-responsiveness issues.
The BlackBerry Curve 9380 is fitted with a five-megapixel camera, matching that of its two spiritual brothers, the Curve 9360 and the Torch 9860, complete with LED flash.
Face detection is built-in, as is geotagging thanks to the GPS chip in the phone. There's also a 4x digital zoom, not that these are ever really worth bothering with in phones if you care about image quality.
You can choose from a range of scene modes, including Portrait, Sports, Landscape, Night, the aforementioned Face Detection (which would be better as a part of the Auto setting) and others.
You can use the Convenience key on the handset as a shutter, or the on-screen button. Either works fine, thanks to the excellent lack of shutter lag - hit the button and the photo appears pretty much instantly.
There aren't any focus options, though. You can't half-depress the Convenience key to focus, and there's no tap-to-focus mode. You'll just have to trust the phone.
OUTDOORS:Eurgh. In the middle of the (admittedly quite overcast) afternoon, there's almost no detail or focus in this shot, and the whole picture is full of digital noise.
LIGHTS: Despite the fast shutter speed, this shot has blurred because the camera just can't get enough light in. Again, this was the middle of the afternoon, but it could be evening judging by this image. And again, there's a huge amount of noise in the solid colours, such as the blue.
COLOUR:This photo is better than the others, with the red poppies picked out well, and clear lines and detail stretching into the background, even though the plaque near the back has been overexposed as part of the camera's attempt to compensate for the light.
DETAIL:This close-up was taken outside, and the flash kicked in, which helped. As a result, you can see plenty of details in the divots in the store. The image is still quite soft, and there's still digital noise in the areas of solid colour, however.
INDOORS:Neither of these shots is worth much cop. The one without flash has more even lighting, but is absolutely filled with digital noise. The subject is brighter with the flash, but there's not really any more detail on show.
Though the stills camera in the BlackBerry Curve 9380 has specs to match its big brother, the Torch 9860, the video camera doesn't meet the same standard.
Instead of any kind of HD recording, it's back to good ol' VGA 640 x 480. Did you miss it? Of course you didn't. No one did. But here it is, anyway.
In the outdoors shot, motion is handled fairly well, and there's actually not much in the way of digital artefacting, except a little during quick pans of the camera. There's a decent amount of light being captured too, making the overall video not at all dark, if low-resolution.
The indoors video is less impressive. There's a bit more artefacting in the top's wobble, and the camera is really struggling to get a decent amount of light in. As a result, the image is full of digital noise, and has lost a lot of detail.
There's not much of a bump to the media capabilities of BlackBerry devices in OS 7, though they were overhauled in BB OS 6, so it wasn't really necessary.
A trip to the Media folder on your BlackBerry Curve 9380's Home screen will find you the Music app, Pictures app, Videos app, Music Store and a podcast app that appears as All Episodes in the menu for some reason.
There's no onboard storage to speak of, so you'll need to stick in a microSD card if you want to add some songs and videos.
The Music app isn't particularly elaborate, but it's easy enough to find your way around, and it has the usual sorting options: artist, album, song, genre and so on.
Album artwork is incorporated throughout - where available - as well as on the Now Playing screen, which also displays the artwork of the next and previous tracks as part of a carousel that you can flick through.
The playing controls are at the bottom of the screen, with shuffle and repeat options at the top.
The whole app responds quickly and fairly fluidly, although it's hardly an exciting entry. There's a nice option named Explore Music Apps that takes you to the Music section of the App World, where you can pick up apps such as TuneIn Radio to add more musicality to your device.
The Music Store app is actually just Amazon's MP3 store when you open it, but this is no bad thing. There's a great range of songs at reasonable prices - what more could you ask of a digital music store?
If you add your own music, the BlackBerry Curve 9380 supports MP3, AAC, WMA, WAV and FLAC, among others.
For video, you're a little more limited on this smartphone, with MPEG-4, H.264 and WMV pretty much all that's supported. Well, H.263 is as well, but most people will gloss over that part.
Impressively, the BlackBerry Curve 9380 supports 720p video playback, and although it's obviously massively scaled down, it plays quite smoothly and looks good on the screen. You notice pixelation far less when the image is moving, and the screen is bright with nice colours, so video isn't bad at all for a small, lower-end device.
Like the Music and Video apps, the Pictures app is on the simple side, but it's fairly responsive, enabling you to swipe between photos without photos without causing performance problems.
You can share your photos over email, Facebook and Twitter from the Menu key, although there are no built-in editing options.
Maps and apps
When it comes to the apps on BlackBerry devices, OS 7 hasn't really rung much in the way of changes, and this remains true on the BlackBerry Curve 9380.
You've got the communication options that we've discussed in other sections of this BlackBerry Curve 9380 review, which are supplemented by dedicated Twitter and Facebook clients.
The Facebook client opens on your news feed, with each post having a plus button that enables you to Like or comment on it.
Tapping the Facebook logo in the top-left corner brings up a main menu that you can use to see your profile, friends, messages and access Facebook Chat. At the top-right of screen is an icon that brings up a list of your recent notifications, messages and friend requests.
Overall response is very snappy, and it's an easy way to keep track of what's going on among your Facebook friends.
The Twitter client is exactly as you'd expect - a long list of tweets coming in, with a pull-to-refresh system for bringing in new tweets. You've got immediate access to your mentions and messages, as well as lists and trending topics. It's easy to see conversations, and Twitpics are previewed as part of the stream.
The Calendar app can integrate with Facebook and Google Calendars, but only in a limited fashion for the latter - it pulled through the account associated directly with out account, but not any of our myriad shared calendars.
It's quite quick to respond, and it's no problem to add new calendar entries (and it'll let you know immediately if an entry conflicts with one you've already got set up). There are lots of options when adding a new entry, though, so it can be a bit of a slog, but it's all simple enough.
You've also got MemoPad for taking notes, Tasks for your to-do list, Documents To Go for viewing files and a Smart Tags app for NFC use is buried in the Applications folder.
BlackBerry Protect is also included, which we'll cover in the next section.
The usual games selection of BrickBreaker and Word Mole are present, and neither is hugely compelling (although they are free, so there's that).
You can, of course, visit the App World to pick up more apps. RIM has been improving it in fits and starts over the last year or so, and while it's slicker than it's ever been, it's still behind the Apple App Store and Android Market, both in terms of discoverability and content.
It still has some great options, and plenty of cross-platform apps that work well, including options for services such as Dropbox.
The BlackBerry Curve 9380 does a good job of finding your previously purchased apps using your BlackBerry ID, and tells you which ones can be reinstalled on your handset. However, we've found on several occasions that it can mysteriously 'lose' apps you've bought, throwing up an error when you try to repurchase them. It's an infuriating and, frankly, unacceptable habit.
BlackBerry Maps is loaded on the Curve 9380 for use with the built-in GPS, and it works well, but not brilliantly. The app is fine, with clear mapping and responsive controls, and you can easily find nearby locations and get directions with it. It's also easy to send a location to someone using email, text message, BBM, Facebook, Twitter and more.
The GPS was able to locate us, but didn't do it particularly quickly, and it wasn't precisely accurate. It tended to narrow down, then become less certain, then narrow down again, and dance back and forth for a while. It was able to get very near, but didn't have the speed and accuracy we're used to on high-end smartphones.
Battery life and connectivity
We found the battery life on the BlackBerry Curve 9380 to be fairly good, although it didn't blow us away. As ever, heavy use of 3G and Wi-Fi will chip away at the power reserves faster than leaving it idle, so the amount of time you get out of it will vary.
During our testing, the smartphone was able to go for a little under two days before running completely flat. This is better than the most power-hungry high-end handsets, but you could still whittle it down to nearly nothing in one day if you're constantly browsing, BBMing and tweeting.
The battery is a reasonably strong area for the BlackBerry Curve 9380, but it's not what we'd call exemplary.
In our BlackBerry Curve 9360 review, we were delighted to see that the Curve line no longer had features held back compared to the Bold line, and the same is true here.
802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi enables speedy internet browsing, as does the HSDPA 3G connection. As we said, the BlackBerry Curve 9380 is excellent at picking up signal, so is capable of some good mobile broadband speeds.
The micro USB port enables you to connect to a computer, where you can use the BlackBerry Desktop Software to to sync music, pictures and videos, as well as locally back up and restore the device, and sync contacts, calendar, note and task information.
The microSD card slot supports up to 32GB of additional storage, and is hot-swappable. When you connect to a computer, this mounts as an external drive, but it can also be accessed by the BlackBerry Desktop Software.
BlackBerry Protect is loaded on the Curve 9380, and it enables you to back up and restore your device without connecting to a PC, and also enables you to locate your phone.
This is all manageable from the phone, but accessing the BlackBerry Protect website with your BlackBerry ID enables you to view the location of your phone, make the phone play a sound, display a message and lock or wipe the device.
It's all pretty much on a par with the likes of Apple's Find my Phone service and HTCSense.com, but it's great to see these sorts of features as standard. When we tested it, everything worked well, so it's a great option to have.
The handset is light without feeling too cheap, and can be perfectly slick and responsive. The idea is spot-on.
But the BlackBerry Curve 9380 is forever hamstrung by the fact that RIM is simply a couple of steps behind the likes of the iPhone 4S, HTC Sensation XE or Samsung Galaxy Nexus when it comes to the more thoughtful, intricate parts of being a touchscreen device.
Where Android has been ruthless in cutting out the less touch-friendly parts of the OS that we saw in it years ago, RIM has just tried to fit touchscreen capabilities into what it already had, to avoid rocking the boat. The BlackBerry Curve 9380 is stuck with one hand tied behind its back.
The BlackBerry Curve 9380 is gloriously comfortable, and you wouldn't worry about dropping it - it seems like it'd bounce and get a bit of a nick, rather than shatter on the floor. It looks good, too - like a modern smartphone, but undeniably BlackBerry.
For a handset lacking horsepower (relatively), it can be quite slick and pleasant to use. We like BlackBerry OS 7's Home screen system, and the social networking integration is well thought out and appealing.
The media functions are good for a mid-range mobile phone, as well. They're easy to use, and videos look good, despite the screen's low resolution.
When it comes to interfaces that are intended to be all-touch, BlackBerry OS just isn't there yet.
Old interface elements bleed through every so often - there's that ridiculous autocorrect issue with the password field, social integration that's great in places but seemingly pointless in others, the touch responsiveness went completely nuts for a day for us… there are both small and big issues all over the place.
We still don't like RIM's touchscreen keyboard, either, although we found it marginally easier here than in the Torch 9860.
And while we don't blame RIM for putting a lower-end CPU in the BlackBerry Curve 9380, and we can forgive the occasional performance lags that that causes, the low-resolution screen is a little disappointing. Surely RIM could have used the 480 x 640 screen from the Torch 9810 here?
There's definitely the potential within the BlackBerry Curve 9380 for it to be a good smartphone, and for many BlackBerry addicts on a budget, hungry for some touchscreen action, it could serve well.
Frankly, we'd rather have the BlackBerry Curve 9360 within the BlackBerry range, but if it's a touchscreen phone you want in this price bracket, we'd go for the iPhone 3GS, thanks to its slicker operating system.
If you can stretch to a few more pounds per month on a contract, though, you'll find all manner of Android phones with vastly improved specs over the Curve, and a more mature operating system.
Although the BlackBerry Curve 9380 has much to commend it, we don't think it's the best option in its price range, and for only a little more money, you could get much more handset.