After the BlackBerry Bold's epically delayed launch on AT&T and the Storm's epically borked launch everywhere, RIM needs 2009 to be better than 2008. The T-Mobile BlackBerry Curve 8900 is a good way to start.
We looked at a close-to-production model Curve 8900 a few months ago (albeit one marked for the Death Star). So far, our experience on this retail unit for T-Mobile has been pretty much the same as it was on the prototype, both good and bad (but mostly good).
We won't call anything bulletproof without less than a week with the device (especially given horribly depressing comments muttered recently by RIM's CEO), but BlackBerry OS 4.6 has been around for several months and been on a few devices at this point, and the Curve 8900, so far, seems like the most stable and least buggy product RIM has shipped in a while. It's also notably hardware that's a return to what they're most comfortable making—a 2G device with Wi-Fi—the kind of phone they'd poop out in the old days (you know, two years ago) and it'd still work fine and deflect missiles and small children while maintaining two-day battery life. So, it does bode well.
Conceptually, the Curve 8900 is almost exactly what you want in a sequel—it ups the ante in a lot of the right ways, like sex quotient, but keeps the fundamentals in place. It's not a beautiful piece of hardware that will magnetically pull drool out of people's lips in a trickle, but it's black-and-chrome modern enough with just the right lines (borrowed from the Storm) that it will draw eyes, if only for a split second.
Three things make the hardware exceptional: The screen is delicious and not just because a video of John Mayer is preloaded on it, one thing RIM's been getting very right (the screen, not John Mayer, though that is also very right). Colors pop like John Mayer's lyrics, contrast is contrasty and the 480x360 resolution is fantastic, with a nice, wide viewing angle. The screen's still too small to watch anything longer than a music video—starring say, John Mayer—but it'll look pretty good while it's rolling.
The new "Atomic" trackball seems noticeably sturdier than the one that's been on BlackBerrys for years. It's more solidly implanted in the device, with less room for nasty junk to squeeze inside, but still plenty of spin in the wheel.
The keyboard, I feel, is better than the original Curve's, with a more pronounced sloped to the keys, a la BlackBerry Bold. I prefer the Bold's keyboard, since it's way roomier and has perfectly squishy keys, as opposed to the super-punchy ones found on the Curve 8900. That said, the Curve 8900 keyboard is still one of the best smartphone keyboards you'll ever tap on. RIM knows how to make QWERTY keyboards with their Canadian eyes closed, even if they're still working out the whole touchscreen clicky thing.
The build quality is another strong point. It's a solid device that you know won't go down without a fight, like all RIM hardware. I'd say it feels more sturdy than the original Curve, which I always thought was excessively plastic-y. It definitely feels nicer than the Curve—more high end, and its smoother lines make for a better handfeel too. The weight's similar to the iPhone 3G—not a feather, but not a monster like the G1 or BlackBerry Bold. The flimsiest part of the phone is the cheapo battery cover, which pops off and on mercifully easy.
A few things muddle the hardware's excellence: The lack of 3G (sorry, once you're used to it, you can't go back) and the Wi-Fi's persnicketiness—it just didn't want to play nice with a few of the secured Wi-Fi networks I had it on, constantly dropping out. Open Wi-Fi points seemed just fine though. Also, when I talked to my mommy, the call quality wasn't bad—it was very clear—but it also had a weird kind of hollowness to it.
Software-wise, the Curve 8900 has every strength and weakness that every BlackBerry phone has when compared to other smartphones: If you're not familiar with BlackBerry email, BlackBerrys are all about it, with features like real push, server-side search, Exchange support, serious security, a million keyboard shortcuts and other power perks. It's not the sexiest looking email client around, but it does everything you'd ever want a smartphone to do in terms of email. There's a reason it's a corporate warrior's mandatory piece of kit.
The OS is fairly easy to use (some particulars aside)—it's an icon-based layout where what you see is what you get. Settings can be a bit of a listicle labyrinth, but for the most part, everything's presented right up front and easy to get to.
Even though the iPhone and though Android get all the press for apps, BlackBerry also has the backing of a pretty solid developer community for applications, so there are tons of applications to download and install, even if they aren't quite as shiny as what's on the iPhone or Android or available from a convenient storefront (yet). The Curve 8900 comes loaded with a solid starter suite though, with instant messenger apps from everybody that matters, like AIM and GTalk; BlackBerry Maps (which is alright, though I prefer Google Maps); and Office to Go, which lets you edit Word, Excel and PowerPoint files...on the go. The media apps work fine, with a fairly generic UI.
The software is hampered mostly by its message-oriented roots, so while it does email better than anyone and does have a ton of apps from the developer community, the whole web thing the iPhone, Android and Palm Pre get, and its attempt to scale to that kind of complexity, is clearly a struggle within the BlackBerry OS paradigm. The Curve 8900's browser, though ridiculously more usable and accurate at rendering than the original Curve's, is slow even over Wi-Fi. Its application approach is still browser-oriented while we wait for the BlackBerry app store and it's pokey and annoying, even from RIM's own central app hub. The apps are there and many are good—Kevin from CrackBerry highly recommends the Bolt browser for a much faster browsing experience—you just have to find 'em.
Oh, one other sore point for BlackBerry is trying to sync one to a Mac. It's not a fun experience, with PocketMac providing nowhere near the kind of complete functionality of the PC BlackBerry Desktop Software, which handles all of your syncing, app and media management, and the total inability to have more one sync program installed on a Mac at once. If you install BlackBerry Media Sync to sync iTunes to your BlackBerry on a Mac, it borks your other syncing programs. =(
Based on our time so far, if you have a BlackBerry Curve, the Curve 8900 is the same thing, but better in a lot of little ways that add up to a markedly better experience overall, thanks to a gorgeous display, slicker OS and well-designed hardware.
It's not a phone to switch to T-Mobile for—especially since it's obviously coming to AT&T, and most probably Verizon and Sprint too—but this is the BlackBerry that most people will be rocking in the next year as it inevitably spreads from carrier to carrier, and for good reason. If you're on T-Mobile, you really have two (good) choices for a smartphone now: This or the G1. If you do serious business, well, the choice is made for you.