In a sense, the BlackBerry Curve 9380 is one of the most interesting phones we’ve seen from RIM in a while. Though it’s specifications aren’t cutting edge and it doesn’t immediately scream ‘Phone Of The Year’ at you, we’ve a sneaking suspicion that the Curve 9380 will do rather well.

To all intents and purposes, the Curve 9380 is basically the same phone as the Curve 9360. But in place of the 2.5-inch non-touchscreen and a physical Qwerty keypad there’s a 3.2-inch capacitive touchscreen. The design is essentially the same and you get the same camera (5-megapixels, LED flash, VGA video recording), microSD up to 32GB, Wi-Fi, GPS and an NFC chip.

Crucially, RIM has told us that the pricing of the Curve 9380 will be in the same region as the Curve 9360.

So, an affordable touchscreen phone with a decent camera and BlackBerry services; ought to be enticing for BBM addicts who want to go touchscreen but perhaps found the Torch 9860 too expensive and/or don’t want to go down the Android/iOS/Windows Phone route. How does it shape up in the real world though? Read on to find out.

BlackBerry Curve 9380: Design and build

Design and build of the BlackBerry Curve 9380 is more or less the same as the Curve 9360. So everything we had to say about that phone in this department applies here.

Save for the obvious difference of it sporting a 3.2-inch touchscreen instead of a 2.5-inch non-touchscreen and a keypad, the two phones are virtually identical. Flip both phones over with the screens facing down and you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference.

The Curve 9380 has a nice shape that rests easily in the palm. It’s lightweight but feels pretty solid - a tough balancing act to pull off but RIM has achieved it here. That said we wouldn’t recommend chucking it into cement mixers or swimming pools - it’s not fully ruggedised or anything.

Up on the top there’s a 3.5mm audio jack, next to a lock control for the screen. Round on the right hand side there’s the volume rocker and a convenience key that’s set to activate the camera’s shutter by default. On the lefthand sits a micro USB connection for charging and data sharing.

Internal memory is a tiny 512MB but thankfully there’s a microSD slot, located above the battery. You can then add up to 32GB if you wish. You’ll want to add a card of some sort, as the camera won’t be able to record any video without it and though you’ll be able to take shots, you’ll only be allowed to take up to 30. And any shots saved to the internal memory will be a pain to get off of the Curve 9380 at any rate.

The battery cover is accessed by peeling it off; there’s a small indentation for your fingernail on the left hand-side under the mirco USB connection. You’ll see as you take the cover off that there’s two gold connections here and some kind of circuitry on the cover itself. Our guess is that this is the NFC chip, given that’s where the NFC of the similarly built Curve 9360 was situated.

Ah yes, NFC. Given that m-commerce has yet to take off in the way that everyone’s hoping it will and BlackBerry Tap - RIM’s tap to share contacts/music/pictures platform - isn’t live yet, it’s hard to say how this adds any value to the Curve 9380 at present. That said, this does mean that the phone is future proofed for any NFC-related goodness that may roll around in the months to come.

BlackBerry Curve 9380: Interface 

BlackBerry OS 7 is easily the nicest-looking BlackBerry interface yet (for phones at least) and it looks and works as well here on the Curve 9380 as it does elsewhere.

Granted, the screen resolution means that the app icons and web pages aren’t as sharp as they are on the Bold 9900. But the 3.2-inch HVGA screen doesn’t mean that things are hopelessly fuzzy or pixellated.

As with the BlackBerry Torch 9860, RIM’s other big touchscreen BlackBerry of this year, the main screen of the Curve 9380 gives you access to all of the main features of the phone from one convenient place.

At the top of the home screen there’s a status bar with a clock, battery and signal which also acts as a shortcuts to the wireless settings menu; from here you can toggle Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and NFC.

Beneath this is a search tool, which allows you to look for contacts and apps (it sadly doesn’t act as a web search tool) which sits next to a voice search tool (which does the same thing, though it’s not as accurate as Google Voice Actions or Siri). In between both of these is a space where Facebook, Twitter and other notifications sit.

Tapping or pulling up at the bottom of the screen gives you access to an Android Honeycomb-style launcher of app shortcuts. This is divided into categories (All, Favourites, Media, Downloads, Frequent) and you can re-order the position of the app icons to suit you. You long press on an icon, wait for the menu to pop up and select the Move option. It’s not as easy as drag ‘n drop on Android and iOS, but it’s useable.

The virtual keyboard is sadly the same as it is on the Torch 9860; basic, functional but not exactly amazing. It does the job, being a simple virtual Qwerty pad with auto-corrections, but nothing that sets our hearts on fire like SwiftKey X and Swype on Android or even the simple-but-super-responsive iOS keypad. We hope that with future OS versions RIM puts as much effort into its virtual keypads as it does is physical ones.

Despite prominently boasting a touchscreen, the Curve 9380 doesn’t totally break away from the BlackBerry mould. As you’ve no doubt already spotted in the images, you get four menu keys - Call, Menu, Back and Cancel/Power.

The functions of these are pretty self explanatory, with the convenience key bring up a list of context-specific commands and functions as well as allowing you to jump to any other apps you might have running in the background. BlackBerry veterans will be wise to the ways of this key; it sort of becomes your lifeline as you explore the ins and outs of the phone and get used to its system of menus.

In between these four keys sits a square optical trackpad. The trackpad is especially handy for correcting typos; the Qwerty as we said isn’t the best we’ve used on a touchscreen phone, so it’s good that you get an extra degree of precision here. Ditto for browsing the web; occasionally, on cluttered, link-heavy pages, you’ll want to use the trackpad to accurately position the cursor.

Obviously OS 7 is designed to work on two types of BlackBerry phone; ones with touchscreens and ones without. RIM’s done a great job in creating a unified OS experience across these two devices and it will no doubt be a breath of fresh air for seasoned users. Compared to life on the Android and iOS side of the pond, things still feel a bit old hat. But we salute RIM for making it the easiest to use BlackBerry phone OS yet.

BlackBerry Curve 9380: Browser

Surfing the web on the Curve 9380 is a mixed bag. On the one hand pages load quickly, quicker than you’d give a small phone at this price point credit for.

But at the same time, when you’re pinching to zoom or scrolling through pages the Curve can struggle to render stuff as smoothly as you’d like. This is particularly noticeable on image-heavy sites (Comixed, ICHC etc) where the browser sometime crashed when we zoomed too quickly for it’s liking.

Tapping in URLs too can be tiresome; the nav bar doesn’t have a search option built in and as we said earlier, the virtual Qwerty isn’t the easiest to use. The browser keeps track of previously visited sites. So while you’ll have to type in ‘www.’ each time, the Curve 9380 will suggest web destinations.

Managing bookmarks and favourites is also a piece of cake and you can have multiple windows open. Theoretically, you can have as many windows open as you want. Upwards of 12 though, we noticed that things really started to slow down.

To open a link in a new page, you’ll need to long-press on a link and wait for the menu to come up and select the option from here. If you’re used to simply tapping on links, as is the norm on other touchscreen-based phone OS’s you might find this odd at first - it’s feels a bit like browsing the web on your desktop but where you only right-clicking on a link to open it in a new tab. Not a pain, just a different way of doing things.

BlackBerry Curve 9380: Multimedia and camera

No headphones came supplied with our review model, so we plugged in a handful of different headphones and played our favourite songs. Nothing to complain about in terms of sound quality here (though nothing to write home about either) but we liked that the majority of headphones seemed to work well with it. The Curve 9380 also recognised all of the remote control units of the headphones we used (we tested out Scosche’s Increased Dynamic Range tapLINE II and Sennheiser’s CX281’s)

Managing tracks and playlists is pretty straightforwards. We were pleased to see that the basic file formats (MP3, WMA, AAC) are supported. There’s no full list of supported files from RIM that we’ve seen yet; we loaded some MID and FLAC files on the microSD card, but we couldn’t get the Curve 9380’s player to recognise them.

The 5-megapixel camera of the Curve 9380 isn't half bad. All phones running BlackBerry OS 7 come with the same lighting settings (landscape, close-up, sports etc). When in auto mode, the Curve 9380 is normally pretty good at detecting when it needs to switch to low-light mode for example.

We found the Curve 9380's camera to be fine for most situations except for macro shots. While there is indeed a close-up option available, we found the camera simply wouldn't play ball and focus on anything that was too close for comfort.

The physical shutter key on the side doesn't work so well, but thankfully you've got the option of tapping on the touchscreen to take pics, something we found easier to do in every occasion. If you do end up taking a shaky pic, it's easy to delete them straight from the preview window. There's virtually no shutter lag between tapping the on-screen control and the Curve 9380 taking a shot. So it's easy to delete and re-shoot on the fly.

While stills aren't of the most amazing quality that we've seen on phones this year, shots taken on the Curve 9380 look decent enough on the 3.2-inch screen.

When you pinch to zoom in on the gallery, things will look a little pixellated for a second, then the gallery adjusts and renders things in greater detail. Zoom in again and you don't get quite as much clarity and sharpness as you would with bigger images. The flash, while not the most effective we've seen, will be enough for capturing fun snaps of a night out.

As well as taking still shots, the camera records video at VGA (640 x 480) and at a lower resolution (176 x 144) for sending videos via MMS.

In either case, videos taken on the Curve 9380 don’t look terrible on the phone’s screen. They do however show their limitations when you upload them to YouTube. The microphone too seemed to pick up a lot of ambient sound (especially indoors). So while static shots are OK on the Curve 9380, for video its less hot.

Considering the pricing of the Curve 9380 though, we think the camera is good. It's not the best by any stretch but it works well and feels like a nice fit.


BlackBerry Curve 9380: Performance

Packing an 800 MHz processor, the BlackBerry Curve 9380 is pretty nippy when it comes to general operations, like writing texts and flipping through the main menu screen.

It’s fast to load the camera and take snaps (as we mentioned above) and aside from web browsing issues, we’re pleased with the overall performance of the Curve 9380. Only rarely does it suffer from any major slowdown and crashes were infrequent and relegated only to the browser.

Call quality is a little murky in places moreso to other mobile numbers, less so with calls to landlines. Thankfully it’s loud enough so that turned all the way up, the Curve 9380 ought to be loud enough to chat in most conditions. We’d have preferred it if voice calls were a little more trebly. We had issues with the loudspeaker which we didn’t think was at all loud enough.

Battery life of the Curve 9380 we found to be good. Even with the web browser, Facebook and the music app playing tunes we found that we’d get a good day’s worth of battery out of it. The official specs list 30 hours of audio playback, 5 hours 30 minutes of talk time and 15 days of standby time which we’d say is pretty accurate, give or take.

The accelerometer doesn’t always respond as smoothly as you’d like it and sometimes, when it’s flipped into landscape, it takes a bit of cajoling to go back to portrait (and vice versa). Sometimes you’ll be shaking the Curve 9380 to get it to go the way you want it to and run the risk of looking a little silly as a result.


Verdict

Given its price point we think that the BlackBerry Curve 9380 will do really well. It offers a similar level of functionality to the more expensive BlackBerry Torch 9860, but for a smaller price tag, bundling NFC capabilities in for good measure.

It’s not the biggest or most powerful touchscreen phone out there. If you’re after something inexpensive that allows you to surf the web and check Facebook and that’s not an Android phone this will certainly satisfy.

Speaking of mid-range priced Android phones, the BlackBerry Curve 9380 compares well against the likes of the HTC Wildfire S and the Samsung Galaxy Ace.

As with the Torch 9860 we think that RIM has got its work cut out for it in that it really needs to look at what the competition offers in terms of touchscreen typing. There’s nothing that even comes close to resembling the predictions of the iOS keyboard and the stock Android one, let alone next level things like Swype and SwiftKey X.

Like we said, it’s not terrible but the texting/emailing experience doesn’t exactly sit well with the BlackBerry brand; i.e. one that’s synonymous with fast and easy typing.