Research In Motion's Curve 9320 is the Canadian manufacturer's new budget mobile phone, sitting below the entry-level Bold 9790. The latter was announced in November last year, along with the Curve 9380, and finally went on sale in January.
The 9320 ships with the current operating system, but with a lesser set of specifications than other BlackBerrys. It's also being pitched as a direct replacement to two of the best-selling RIM phones - 2009's Curve 8520 and 2010's 9300 3G. These two devices played an important part in making RIM the biggest seller of smartphones during 2010 and 2011.
The Curve 9320 has more of a rounded design to its edges than its predecessors, where the top of the phone curves into the rear of the chassis. RIM's new Curve has the same dimensions as the earlier models, with a height of 109mm and a width of 60mm. It's thinner and lighter, too, measuring 12.7mm, compared to 13.9mm, and weighing 103g - versus 106g and 104g of the 8520 and 9300, respectively.
The slimmer body and added lightness make a noticeable difference when holding the phone, especially if you've been using one of the previous models. Even more noticeable, however, is the more professional and designer look of the 9320, highlighted by its silver rim and better quality plastics used in its construction.
Gone from the top of the phone are the music buttons: play, pause, forward and rewind. Instead, there's just a standby button and a 3.5mm audio jack, which has been relocated from the left-hand side of the phone. The loss of hardware music buttons is a strange choice, since RIM is now heavily marketing its own BBM Music service. This wasn't around at the time of the older phone's arrival and it would have made more sense now, than ever, to include this within the series.
Missing too, are the touch-sensitive send, menu, escape and end/power keys - located beneath the screen. These have been replaced by physical buttons that perform the same function. Removing the music and touch-sensitive buttons could be seen as a step backwards, but it's one that I agree with.
The 2.46in non-touch screen boasts a resolution of 320 x 240 pixels and a ppi of 164. The latter has been increased from 163 from the past mobiles that ran with a 2.44in display. RIM's 9320 does appear to have a brighter and clearer screen, when compared to the 8520 and 9300 models, and rightly so too. After all, those handsets are based upon older hardware. The screen size is a good fit and will be adequate for the Curve's purpose: messaging, texting and social networking.
I used the QWERTY keyboard to write a good chunk of this review, in order to both try out the keyboard over a good period of time, while experiencing the phone, as a new user would. This is also with a view to discover how long it would take to get use to the handset as my main phone.
Compared to the 8520 and 9300, the 9320's keyboard is raised further from the surface of the handset. As is traditional with the RIM handsets, the keyboard is designed to be operated with just one hand; starting with the thumb at the centre of the keyboard and then branching out left and right, to reach all the letters.
This and the new higher profile keys offer an improved typing experience over the older models, whether this is with one hand or two (and with larger fingers). It didn't take a great deal of time to become accustomed to the keyboard, where fast typing was achieved with relative ease.
Driving the Curve 9320 is a single-core 806MHz processor - a step-up from the 512MHz in the 8520, and 9300 3G's 624 MHz. It's no dual-core powerhouse, but was fast enough to handle the operations of the handset and we didn't encounter any lag. The likes of HTC is now deploying a 1GHz chipset in budget devices, such as the Desire S and One V. I would have hoped to have seen a higher clock speed in the Curve; perhaps on the next generation?
The 9320 arrives with 512MB of RAM and an equal amount of internal storage - double the amount of its predecessors. This can also be augmented by using a microSD card, just like you could with the older models, although the memory card slot is not in the usual place. It's still located under the battery cover, but not under the battery itself. Instead, it has been positioned just above the battery, with a small angled entrance. This makes hot-swapping of cards much easier, as the battery doesn't have to be removed all the time. Only the slot isn't clearly labelled and is therefore hard to identify; it could have been mistaken for a ventilation hole. There have even been BlackBerry support forum posts, asking where the microSD card slot is located, as a direct result of its placement.
The Curve doesn't arrive with NFC access, although this isn't a deal breaker as it's still a burgeoning technology. What is sadly lacking is HSPA+ access. Web browsing and download speeds are restricted to HSPA 7.2Mbps, rather than 14.4Mbps.
As this is set to be a direct replacement to the Curve 8520 and 9300 3G handsets, HSPA+ wasn't on the agenda. In fact, the 9300 was only the first BlackBerry Curve mobile to actually gain access to 3G. We should be thankful that Research In Motion decided to sell the 9320 within the UK, as there is a 9220 version with just 2G access. The phone does have Wi-Fi on-board, so if you really want HSPA+ access you can always tether to someone else's phone or a MiFi device, with that network capability.
The lack of HSPA+ could be good for the life of the battery, but more on that later. I did notice an anomaly during phone calls - the data signal dropped down to GPRS; the lowest available mobile broadband speed. This, too, could save the battery, but it will hamper the downloading of larger email attachments, as the peak speeds are only between 9.6 to 14.4kbps.
There are some new additions to the Curve range, and these are items not found within the whole portfolio. First up, is the addition of a dedicated BlackBerry Messenger button on the left-hand side of the device. When used, the BBM key launches the infamous messenger app in much the same way as the dedicated camera button launches the camera app. This just shows how popular the BBM functionality has become, to warrant its own piece of hardware.
This might be seen as a novelty, but it's a feature that will sell the device, especially to the youth market where the Curve 9320 is clearly aimed. It is useful, in much the same way as the Facebook button is on the HTC Chacha and Salsa phones, by delivering quick access to that particular social network. I would have thought that Research In Motion would have been first to the market with a dedicated launch button, judging by the popularity of BBM and that it is bespoke to the company. It does seem a little remiss that this isn't a feature of any other BlackBerry devices, but I expect it to be deployed in future models.
The other new addition is the built-in FM radio, which will save on the cost of streaming music, for those who are on a budget. The Curve 9320 is the first BlackBerry to offer a built-in radio, although there is a slight caveat to this claim by RIM. The Curve 9360 and full-touch screen 9380 did actually contain FM radio hardware, but this wasn't accessible until the BlackBerry 7.1 OS update. This latest release was announced at Las Vegas' CES this year, and began to rollout in the second week of May.
The camera has been upgraded from the 2-megapixel version found in the 8520 and 9300, to a 3.2-megapixel variant. This is accompanied by an LED flash for the first time. Comparing the operation of the camera to its older family members, clearly shows improvements in response time, focussing, zoom level and just overall quality and usefulness.
The BlackBerry Curve 9320 operating system will be familiar to those who have used any RIM device over the past two years. Since the BB 6 OS - with its reworked and friendlier user interface - subsequent versions have become easier to use by featuring a more accessible UI, sporting a drop-down notification bar for messages, calendar, phone and social networking updates.
Version 7 brought in RIM's liquid graphics technology that utilises the new graphics and main processor in these handsets, for the better rendering of animations. I didn't experience any lag, even in this lower-powered CPU, stacked up against its more expensive siblings. There has been nothing cut back in the OS either, compared to what is found running the high-end models. This is a nice touch, as whatever your budget is, there is now continuity across the whole series, with what the operating system can offer.
Version 7.1 brought in Near Field Communication abilities, which is missing from the 9320. This is along with an updated HTML 5 web browser that's 40 per cent faster at loading pages, than previous versions of the OS. It isn't the best web surfing tool if used alongside Android or a new iOS device, but it will suffice.
There is also new BlackBerry Messenger connected applications, which allows you to chat with friends from inside of apps. This is along with offering the feature to post just one update, to Facebook, Twitter and BBM, all at the same time. There are now hundreds of BBM connected apps and these account for one in five downloads, from the BlackBerry World store.
On-board is a unified inbox, as expected with a device and OS that is steeped in messaging history. Brought into this are emails, text and BBM messages, along with Twitter and Facebook updates too; which saves trawling through various client, as they're all presented in one accessible place. With this latest rev of the platform, there's universal search to complement the unified inbox, with suggestions bought in by Microsoft's Bing search engine.
The Curve 9320 does actually ship with the BlackBerry 7.1 OS, while the latest generation of handsets arrived with version 7 of the platform. These devices were the Bold 9900, Torch 9860, Torch 9810, Curve 9360 and Bold 9790, but are now all upgradable to the new operating system.
Older handsets can't be upgraded to the new OS, even though the specifications are higher, in some models - which can been a bone of contention with BlackBerry phone owners. There are different chipsets involved and these are unsupported, which is the definitive reason for the lack of upgradeability.
One of the key features of the new BlackBerry 7.1 OS is the ability to use the handset as a mobile hotspot, AKA a Mi-Fi device. This expands the overall usefulness of a RIM handset, by offering up Internet access, albeit over BlackBerry services, for up to five Wi-Fi enabled devices. I have noticed there have been some queries in support forums, if this ability is supported by UK networks - as tethering, which effective this is - wasn't a feature with BlackBerry services, up until this month.
At the time of going to press, we can confirm that the following networks support this feature - O2, Three, T-Mobile and Vodafone; Orange has yet to respond.
The Battery life of a mobile phone will always be an influencing factor over choosing a new handset, where headlines over poor battery life can be as attention grabbing as the ‘iPhone 5 coming out tomorrow'. The Curve 9320 is not an exception to this rule, as it comes with a controversial battery pack, the J-S1.
The flagship BlackBerry Bold 9900 only ships with a 1230mAh battery, despite all that it has to power: a 1.2GHz processor, a 286ppi 2.8in screen, NFC, et al. Research In Motion's last few mobiles, the Bold 9790 and Curve 9380, still entry-level phones, shipped with this older version, too.
The Curve 9320 has a 1450mAh battery, offering increased longevity than even RIM's high-end, top-tier, mobile phones - such as the Torch 9860 and 9810.
In our weekday testing of the phone, I ran BlackBerry Services, with three email addresses in action and the social networking services of Facebook and Twitter. Over 100 emails were received during testing, where my Facebook has 650 friends and 1650 people are followed on Twitter. This is all with receiving lots of updates, over these platforms. I sent a few emails, BlackBerry messages, text messages, Tweets and Facebook messages, every hour. I then ran the battery down, by calling another mobile phone, just as if the phone was being used for its true purpose: making calls.
I managed to obtain maximum, 10 hours, 56 minutes and 55 seconds, before the 9320 disconnected from the mobile network. Research In Motions' handsets perform this action to show that it has no power to run the phone, with a network access. I repeated these tests twice, with results close to that first figure, each time.
In my estimation and from extensive experience in mobile phone battery testing, the BlackBerry Curve would last a good, full, working day without needing to charge on heavy use. The handset could last a day and a half for a mid-heavy user, and nearly two days on mild use, without the need to find a power source.
In our press briefing for the launch of the 9320, a Research In Motion spokesperson stated that the 9320 is aimed at bringing people "from feature phones to smartphones, for the very first time". While adding: "it is seen as a direct successor to the 8520 and 9300 Curve models; as a large portion of our customer base is using those phones" - with the former resonating in my mind, while reviewing the handset.
I believe the Curve 9320 has a good chance of capturing those wishing to upgrade from those two older models, but for first time smartphone owners, we are yet to be convinced.
The Curve does offer a good OS that has been seen in higher-end models, and this delivers continuity across the series and with no lag in an operating system experience - even with a low-end processor. It will be those who use BlackBerry Messenger that will be attracted to the 9320, with its dedicated BBM hardware button. We doubt feature phone owners will convert, only the younger market, as it is a good, affordable, decent, BlackBerry mobile, without anything to really complaint about.
RIM has stated to ITProPortal that this is the very last mobile phone in the BlackBerry 7 OS portfolio, and that it now completes the whole range; let's see what the BlackBerry 10 OS will bring, but we doubt the handsets will be at the more affordable end of the spectrum, for some time.
Pros: Latest BB 7.1 OS; long battery life; mobile hotspot; good physical keyboard.
Cons: Lack of HSPA+; low-end processor; loss of music and touch responsive buttons.
Manufacturer: Research In Motion
Network: GSM 850/900/1800/1900
Memory expansion: microSD
Display: 2.44in, 240 x 320 pixels
Main camera: 3.2-megapixels
Front camera: No
FM radio: Yes
Size: 109 x 60 x 12.7 mm
OS: BlackBerry 7.1 OS